The problem with readers is that they are not you. They have different backgrounds, different experiences, different ways they see the world now, different hopes for what the future could, should, or will bring.
All of this means that, generally, they won’t see your story in the same way that you will when you wrote it, or edited it, or published it.
What I’m saying is that I know there’s a story that the writer is trying to tell, and that it is very likely that what I read is not that story.
And that’s the problem that we have. We have several translation issues, where we play fiction telephone, in that we have a story in our heads. (For nonfiction, we have a message we wish to convey.) It’s up there. We, as authors, and that story, are the most intimate of partners. It literally lives inside our brain. Almost like we are symbiotic. It’s fully coalesced, fully baked. We know every nook and cranny, every nuance, every little corner behind the elbow that if our partner kisses it just right we fucking crumble.
And, just like the AI from the movie Her, we can have several of these relationships at once, with our several works that we have once created, are currently creating, or are just gestating, awaiting their own future moments of birth and emergence and maturity within our mind, to join the created and creative community. It’s not required to be monogamous for us.
Anyway – we have all these stories in our head, and then we must force them to go through the first adaptation: from our brain, to the words on the page. Here, we are so clouded by our own experience, which is obviously unique from every other person in the world, and so influenced by our own perspective and desires and fears, that it becomes virtually impossible that the magnificent, fantastic, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, award-worthy, inevitably-bestselling story survive that adaptation intact.
It can’t. There’s too much. From the limits of our vocabulary to the inability of language in general to express the nuances of emotion, something, many things, several elements of the story, will get lost or modified or perturbed in the first offload from our brain to the text. We may hope that it remains intact, whole, surviving, but invariably there is a loss of fidelity, sometimes slight, sometimes great, and this is just the first step.
Next, we have the medium. There certainly are differences between how users take in an experience when it’s delivered via hardcover, paperback, e-reader, serial email, audiobook, podcast, or web browser. The differences in these formats are vast, and bring with them several connotations about the work itself, which can vary reader to reader, culture to culture, and even when consumed at various times of day. All of which means that your readers who take in the first adapted story in the morning, on their tiny phone screen, as they’re jostled along by the mass transit commute, may have a wildly different experience from those who listen to it in their headphones while they work in the garden in the heat of the afternoon.
Finally, there is the translation from the medium back to the reader. She doesn’t have the same background as the writer, or the publisher, so what makes its way through her experience filters certainly impacts how she perceives the story. She may have good memories of owning a pet as a child, so my story of pet ownership evokes warm fuzzies. Whereas I was trying to express my disgust at the many ways that humans subjugate those pets to seek resolution of their own emotional insufficiencies.
Basically, the long and short of it is, you and I don’t see the same story. Whether it’s one that I write and you read, or one that you write and I read, it’s never the same. Sometimes it’s better on the reader’s end. Usually not. The process has morphed it, transformed it, sculpted it slightly or majorly from how it began. And that’s okay.
We shouldn’t be trying to be all things to all readers. We shouldn’t have this idea that we have to satisfy all sensibilities, all experiences, all backgrounds. And we shouldn’t expect that just because we wrote something poetic, or upbeat, or subversive, that our audience is destined to have the same feeling about it after finishing as we do. The only thing we can do is to craft the best story in our head. And then do what we can to minimize the translation errors in the first step. It is our authorial responsibility to make sure what’s on the page is as close as possible to the masterpiece inside our brain.
Because that’s storytelling. It’s part of the process. I think we in the audience have a subconscious understanding of this corruptive process. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Which is why I usually end my critiques to other writers like this:
“May the story in your reader’s mind be as wonderful as it is in yours.”
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My partner has recently developed a disgusting habit, what do I do?
My partner lately has been picking his nose and eating his boogers and whenever I see him do it out of the corner of my eye I want to throw up. We’ve been together over 5 years and it’s something he’s only started doing recently. I’ve been too grossed out and honestly kind of shocked to say anything about it, what should I do/how should I talk to him about it?
— Can’t Remove the Mental Image
Is this really a problem? How infantile has our society gotten where adults don’t even have the wherewithal to engage in a reasonable conversation with someone they’re apparently sharing your life with?
How hard is this? “Hey, Jack, I saw you pick your nose and eat it the other day. Are you eight? Knock that shit off! At least, when I’m around. And if you do it before you get near me, please have the decency to give the ol’ Listerine bottle a once-over before you toss my salad.”
Good lord. It’s like we’ve created a whole community of seven-year-olds in thirty-year-old bodies with jobs and responsibilities and shit. If I were in charge, first thing I’d do is institute a “Breeding License” test. We start with a simple operation on every boy and girl beginning at about age seven. Then, in order to get your license, you must first demonstrate that you can perform such simple societally-beneficial functions like self-management and having a reasonable conversation with another human being before you could get your tubes un-tied.
Maybe that way we’d give ourselves a bit of time to grow the fuck up and realize that conflict, especially emotional confrontation, is not a catastrophe to be avoided at all costs. In fact, those smaller, seemingly unimportant conversations are actually like an emotional vaccine, strengthening our systems for the harder work that we’ll have to do in the future.
note – this was originally published on the Trailhead Conference blog, which has since gone bye-bye. I subsequently published it on an also-bye-bye Medium.com page (link for teh googlez).
May, 2014. Interior, downtown Indianapolis branch of a large national bank. One personal banker seated across from me in a standard bank chair. One person, me, seated in my standard bank chair, listening to her speak.
The personal banker was, at best 26 years old. She had no clue what was happening in my life. She had no idea what had been transpiring the last six months, or the last six years. And because of that ignorance, what she said next devastated me.
She put her hands together, index fingers and thumbs touching, as if she were about to play a quick rhythm on a small drum. “So,” she said, and as she started to separate her hands (like Moses parting a bowl of soup), the next five words destroyed my life as I knew it and launched me full-blown into my “mid-life crisis”.
I have stated for the record my opinion that the term mid-life crisis is inappropriate, but since it’s still a fairly common term I’m going to continue to use it here. Plus we have the pejorative expectation that if you’re going through your mid-life crisis, that this is some kind of failure of your character. That you are somehow weak because you can’t stand up to the demands of life, and you’re seeking an easy way out.
Well, let me tell you, my mid-life crisis was certainly not a failure of my character. I don’t think anyone who saw me go through that would have said I was weak. That I had failed. That I had given up and was looking for a shortcut or a way out.
No, what happened to me was, essentially, a combination of multiple storms all hitting within a six-month period. And, to be honest, only one of those could be considered my fault.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Your mid-life crisis happens to you, it does not happen because of you. Most often this is a period of searching, of introspection, of exploration, and usually they’re set off by some inciting incident. Mine lasted about two years, kicked off by four different major events all coming together in a pretty short time frame.
Within six months: my car died on the highway; my faith died in the pew; my career died in the cubicle; and my marriage died in a nursing home. I only noticed this was happening, though, when that personal banker spoke five short, simple words.
Before I tell you what those words were…
Allow me to back up a little. I think it’s important you know some of what was going on at the time.
In the fall of 2013 I was 36 years old.
I’d been married for 14 years, and my wife and I had four children. I had a stable job at an insurance company, a reasonable group of friends at church, and some neighbors who knew a bit of what we were going through.
One cold Thursday evening in November, on the way home from work, I was driving down I-70 out of Indianapolis. My 1999 Toyota Corolla was flowing along like normal when, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. I managed to avoid getting squished by the passing 18-wheelers and get it off to the side of the road, and then to a gas station, through a clever system of keeping my foot on the accelerator just enough to keep the engine on, but not so much that I sped up and needed to hit the brakes, because every time I did that it stalled out again.
Five hours later, after a tow truck wait and a phone call to my mother-in-law to ask for an emergency run to take care of my kids, I got home with my never-to-run-again vehicle. For some guys, this could be the thing that starts them questioning, “Hey, what’s going on here?”
One of them might take a few days, decide that the repair would be worth more than the car, and just junk it. When he comes back from the dealership with an impractical new sports car, all the neighbors look at him funny. Classic symptom of the mid-life crisis, and the associated judgment, because all they see is indulgence.
What he was thinking, though, could have been just about anything. From “I’ve never had something that’s just for me” to “It’s my last chance before I have to get another minivan,” his thoughts could have been anywhere. Too bad we often judge those who are in the middle of this so quickly.
For me, it wasn’t that momentous on its own. But a flood was building, a silent accumulation of nature’s power that soon I would be unable to ignore. The car, though, was just the start. Strike one.
A couple of months later, around February of 2014,
I realized I wasn’t enjoying my work any longer. Sure, I was productive, as I needed to be. But I was also spending excessive amounts of time browsing the internet at work, doing side projects that made it “look” like I was working, and just getting the minimum done. I guess, since everyone essentially knew my home situation, they gave me some slack.
Yet as I looked to the future, I could see that my heart just wasn’t in it. I couldn’t imagine pushing spreadsheets and databases for the next 30 years. It wasn’t in me to just keep doing a job for that long, and then retire to say, “Now what?”
It would be another year before I actually quit, but that intervening time I was actually dead in the office, just walking around and doing enough to not get fired. Strike two.
A few weeks after that, all of my spiritual questions began to come to a head. I’d been dealing with these issues for nearly a year, ever since God made a promise that did not come true, and I finally could not accept the absolutism, the short-sightedness, the irrationality, and the hypocrisy of my church any longer.
It’s not like there were any big scandals. (Those are often inciting incidents in and of themselves.) It was just that I started to see that for many of the congregants, their professed faith and their actions did not jive.
I saw countless instances of prayer for “a miracle” healing for someone who, frankly, would have been better off dead. And if, as they said they believed, that the home of the soul was in Heaven, why in Hell would they be striving so hard to keep such a soul imprisoned in this sinful, cursed, pained body? It didn’t make sense. That, and dozens of other questions and concerns came together to make me finally say, “You know, I don’t know whether there really is a God or not.”
When I could finally call myself an agnostic, that signified the death of my faith.
Unfortunately, I was so oblivious to it all that I didn’t yet see the writing on the wall. I ignored the incredible tidal wave of change looming, and I continued to push on harder and harder in the things I was doing, to make it seem like I was “okay”.
Finally, in May of 2014, the dam burst.
That young, naïve personal banker put her hands together and spread them apart. “So,” she said, and that was all right. Nothing wrong with that. “If you’re separating your finances…”
And the bell tolled for my marriage.
One more flashback may be in order.
In March of 2013, my wife was admitted to a rehabilitation facility, in order to supplement the stem cell treatment she’d recently received in India. She was having neurological degeneration, causing balance problems, emotional problems, and keeping her from caring for herself. We had spent two months in India for the treatment, and had been home for a month with little progress. The thought was, go live in the rehab facility and get help daily, to get back on track.
Eight months later, without any progress to show for the time, it was necessary to have her admitted to Medicaid, so we didn’t have to exhaust my financial resources to pay for her care.
After admission, the State of Indiana gives you 6 months to get the Medicaid recipient’s name off of all the accounts. Which I did, leading to me in a Bank of America office downtown Indianapolis. I explained the situation, and what I was doing, and how I needed new accounts that were just me and not joint accounts any longer. She said, “So, if you’re separating your finances-” and I didn’t hear a word after that.
I didn’t cry, then, but that was the moment that I lost my marriage. It was at that point that I realized we were separated. As much as I’d tried to fight it, as much as I’d denied the fact that we hadn’t had any kind of relationship for over a year, my marriage was done. We were separated, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and, now, financially. My marriage had died in that nursing home, and I had only just realized it while sitting in a bank.
Four momentous, life-changing, potentially tragic events
that, yeah, reasonably would make one stand up and ask, “What in the world am I doing here? What does this mean for me? Where do I go? How do I move forward, when everything that I used to know just keeps changing on me?”
With all of those things coming at me, who’s to say that I was weak? That I was a poor judge of character? That I was at fault for any of that? Perhaps you can perhaps blame the religion thing on me. Maybe I didn’t have enough faith. But isn’t that just a demonstration of actual faith, that it’s not something imparted upon a soul, but it is an actual article of belief, that you choose to believe or not? And if I was finding more information that contradicted my original belief, do I not owe it to myself to at least consider that maybe my beliefs are wrong, and that I would do well to reconsider?
So… that’s how I came to my mid-life crisis. My journey out from that bottom took about two years. Lots of introspection. Lots of crying in the car, questioning and yelling and singing silly songs because I just didn’t know what else to do. Lots of long walks by myself, talking to myself, talking to the voices in my head, talking to the geese on the side of the path. Did those things make me weak? Did those things make me a bad person?
And they are not for any other person who’s going through similar, or even very different, circumstances. There’s a real good reason why, even without major inciting incidents, that a mid-life crisis happens to good people, even if your car is still running and your faith is still flowing and your job is still reasonable and your marriage is still intact.
For the rest of us? Those who had some big “F you” from the universe that kicked us out of our comfort zones? We know better. We know we were actually doing a lot. We know we were sometimes doing much, much more than those who looked down their noses at us for being weak or self-indulgent. We know that we knew better than they did just what, exactly, was going on inside our own heads. And our results afterwards showed.
Experience. Transformation. Growth. We did these things and we came out of our mid-life crises set up for great things in the future.
It turns out this post was not about my mid-life crisis at all.
I’ve said that mine was all four of those things falling apart all at once, but, really, it’s probably more the two years that came after that were the crisis itself. Those events were just instigators.
And the straw that broke the camel’s back was, after all, really simple. Just 5 little words: “If you’re separatingyour finances.”
Be careful with your words, friends. You never know when they’ll have the power to change lives.
I don’t have space here for a full discussion of all that went on in my head (and in my house) over those subsequent months, but I probably will write about that in the future. For now, though, I just have a couple of take-aways.
For someone going through it right now: Keep going. You are the only one who knows everything that’s going on. And, yeah, it probably feels like you’re inadequate to the task, and that you are an impostor, and that you really just wish everyone else would shut up about it and let you get on with your life. You’re right. They should. But they’re probably not going to, so you’ll just continue on faking it, hoping to outlast the crisis as it blows itself out. You can do it.
And for those who are watching someone go through it, whether that be a family member, friend, or co-worker: Cut them a little slack, please. Let’s not pretend like you have any clue what’s going on inside that head, or inside their house, or inside their church, or inside their body. Let’s also stop with the hollow attempts at encouragements like “I can’t imagine what you’re going through! You must be so strong!” You’re right, you can’t imagine it. And I, while I’m in it, don’t feel that strong. I mostly feel like a fake, and if I really let down my guard and showed you the terrible thoughts inside my head, I imagine you’d run away screaming.
So let’s stop with the empty gestures, huh? Just be real, and give people some space and time to explore. You might not like where they’re going, but, hey, you don’t have to live their lives.
The early 2000s saw revolutions in several technologies. There was the rapid expansion of internet access, the development of eInk and ePaper, and the rise of self-publishing tools such as blogging (WordPress, Blogger, and now OnlyFans and Patreon).
This perfect storm of technological advancements was supposed to be sounding the death knell for the publishing industry. Now that we’ve had eReaders like the Kindle, the Kobo, the nook, and even apps for our iPads and other phones for fifteen years, we’re all supposed to be reading everything electronically, instantly, wherever we go.
Books are supposed to be dead. Dead as the trees that make them. Deader than doornails. The publishing industry is supposed to be gutted, relegated to a slag-heap of has-been technologies like horse-draw carriages and the telegraph.
Yet books persist. Libraries still exist. People still read: old people, middle-agers like me, and even younger generations still read. They pick up two covers with a few hundred pages in between, sit down and stare in the general direction of their crotch for a few minutes or an hour, and then get up and go on their way.
Books are clearly not dead. Publishing is not dead. Books and eReaders and online blogs have somehow managed to find a sort of equilibrium of market share, wherein some people read only physical books, some read both physical and electronic (and audio) books, and some don’t read at all. But eBooks have clearly not eviscerated the market for paper books, much to the surprise of all those circa-2005 prognosticators.
Everybody’s got their own theories as to why publishing and books just won’t die. The cynics say it’s because there’s so much money invested in advertising that we just can’t help ourselves but to buy books. Others say it’s because we’re too old and set in our ways that we can’t adapt to the newer ways of life that would be better for us (more convenient! cheaper! faster!).
I don’t think those are the only reasons. I think there are several forces underlying our continued engagement with dead trees. Here are a few.
Books are tangible things. eBooks are not.
Sure, an eReader is itself tangible. But the book is a physical object. When you pick it up, you feel the weight and heft of it. You touch its pages. You smell the aroma of the ink, the faint tinge of memory that lingers on the pages. It’s something.
eBooks on your reader, on the other hand, are very fragile. Nebulous. They can come, and therefore go, with just a click. It’s almost like they’re not really there. When you have 1,000 books on your bookshelf, you can humblebrag to your neighbors about how hard it was to move last time, when in reality you’re swelling with pride that you’re so smart that you’ve read some of the titles that are on your shelf! When you have 1,000 eBooks, nobody knows. They’re all within that little half-inch slab on your desk, and you’ve got to do a hell of a lot more work to brag about that.
With a book, you can physically see and feel your progress through the experience. Your bookmark travels with you as you navigate the story. As you notice the end approaching, it’s unignorable how much is left because of how little is held in one hand and how much is in the other, and you can do the internal math to say, “Hey, this story isn’t going to finish in these pages,” or “Oh good! I’m almost done!” Can’t do that with eBooks. Sure, there’s that little slider sometimes at the bottom of the page or the side of the screen, but it’s not the same. You can see it, but you can’t feel it.
Books are real. eBooks just aren’t.
Books are permanent. eBooks are ephemeral and fleeting.
When you have a book on your shelf, it’s not going to change next week, next month, or next year, when the author suddenly gets cancelled for things she said twenty years ago. eBooks, blogs, tweets, and other “new media” are quite vulnerable to the tides of social sentiment, in several directions. Someone doesn’t approve of a chapter? Maybe it gets deleted or changed! Other people have asked for more on a certain topic? Well, just hit [update post] and now we’re exploiting the algorithms even more efficiently!
Books don’t have that vulnerability to changing externality. (Unless you’re in Oceania, of course.) They are what they were when they were printed, nothing more, nothing less. Yes, interpretations may change over time, but at least we have some permanent record of what was posited, and when, so that we can always have a fixed reference point to come back to.
That sort of permanence of idea means we don’t have to question what the author really thinks. We can just look at her words, and know.
Books are robust. eBooks are vulnerable.
In complement to the contents of our books being consistent, the physical thing of a book is also persistent. I can go to my library and read the exact same thing that my neighbor did a week ago, or the Mayor did a month ago, or my grandmother did fifty years ago. Physical books deliver a communal experience spanning space and time that you don’t get with eBooks. An eBook is a singular thing, a one-off instance, that disappears as soon as it is deleted. And it requires an external, electrical source to be able to access it. Sure, the content may be recreated, but it’s not the same thing. It’s a different thing. It didn’t exist before, and it won’t persist after you’re gone.
You can’t write a note in the margin or on a cover of an eBook that can be discovered by future generations and relate to. You can’t take an eBook with you on a hike on the Ozark Trail and trade it with someone you meet along the way, mingling ideas and their expression for a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience that parallels how swapping DNA beyond a limited gene pool benefits future generations.
In short, eBooks are for the right here, right now experience. If you want to have any kind of relationship with your ancestors, or your descendants, in your own family, tribe, nation, or even across the world, you’ll read books and you will tell others about that experience. You will listen as others tell you of their reading, and you will commune with them when your fingertips touch the pages that theirs did not that long ago.
And these are all good reasons that books will stick around. The biggest, though, may have to do with signaling.
Physical book publishing send a vastly stronger signal than eBook publishing.
Publishing a physical book requires vastly more investment than publishing an eBook. With both, it starts with writing up a manuscript. The similarities end there.
If you’re publishing a physical book, there are many next steps: finding a publishing company, which may take finding an agent or going through the never-ending saga of queries and rejections; editing; typesetting; cover design; interior design; paper selection; print schedule; marketing plan; and more.
It can be anywhere from a few months to a few years from the time the author types THE END to the day that a reader first sets eyes up Once upon a time…
For the eBook, though, it’s almost nothing. They can push [PUBLISH] and it’s done, whether that’s hosted on their own website or even a marketplace. There’s very little barrier to entry.
And yes, I know that many well-produced eBooks are clones of the physically-printed books. The publishers do all the work up front for the physical book, and then just port it over to eBook format.
See, the thing is, readers aren’t stupid. They know that there’s such a low bar for many eBooks that they lump those well-produced volumes in with the slipshod ones, and taint the whole format with their simplicity.
I don’t mind. It creates, in the mind of the reader, a much higher barrier to entry to be able to publish a physical book than an electronic one. Which means that the readers care much more about physical books than electronic books. They know the signal that publishing a physical book sends, and they respect that commitment to the cause.
Because they also know, even if it’s only subconsciously, that the author must have a stronger conviction of their message, if they’re willing to go through all that effort for something that cannot be changed later, cannot be rescinded, and will potentially (hopefully!) last for hundreds or thousands of years. The author’s belief, and the parallel commitment from the publisher, signal to the reader that, “Hey, this is something you really should pay attention to.”
Yes, some of that higher barrier to entry is being lowered every day, through print-on-demand capabilities, freelance cover and interior design, and the opportunity to self-promote through social media. Instead of reducing the signal for physical books, I think such ease of use contributes to the greater differential signal between externally-published and self-published volumes.
The vast outweighing of signals between physical books and eBooks persists. I’m confident that physical books will never go away, because readers don’t want them to. They want someone to be able to sort through all the multitude of potential messages on their behalf and tell them which ones are more likely to be good. That’s what the physical book does. That’s why we will continue to see them as so valuable. That’s why we’ll never, ever, ever give them up. And that’s why, in a hundred years, physical books are likely to echo Mark Twain’s apt quote:
The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.
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.
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?
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.
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.
How many different motivational speakers and life coaches are in the world today? Approximately a brazillion.
How many of them actually have something meaningful to say for your life?
Maybe 5 or 6.
Who are they?
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!”
Do they work?
For the right people
At the right time.
But for you?
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.
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.
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
Don’t like who you are?
Don’t like your attitude?
Don’t like your emotions?
Don’t like your anger?
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 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:
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.
Stop looking for answers in a book, or on a website, or in a seminar.
Stop searching for tips onhowto be better, and just … start … being better.
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.
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 canwrite 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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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
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!
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
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.