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.

Read the rest on Patreon

Extremely Bad Advice: Time to Abandon Ship?

Dear SJ,

I am 15 years old and to me it seems like America is rapidly spiraling into depravity. 

The government becomes increasingly authoritarian, culture continues degrading into a grey consumerist sludge, our society is worse than ever, the next generation is posed to be worse off than any generation since people who were 18 in the 1940s. Should I just abandon the country, get my college education and leave without looking back? Is it worth discarding everything to jump off a burning ship?

Fearful for the Future

USA flag on grunge wood texture background

Dear Fearful,

I think you’ve already answered your question simply by the way you’ve worded it. 

Far be it from me to stop you when you’ve very astutely assessed the smoldering wreck that is this once-fine country.

Increasingly authoritarian? Check. Degrading culture? Double check. Addicted to consumerism? Triple check. Setting up our future progeny for the worst experience in the last hundred years? Game, set, and match.

You seem like a smart kid. And if you’ve downed this many red pills at the tender age of 15, there’s nothing that can stop you. Should you get out of America? Hell, yeah! And why wait until you’ve gotten a college education before you take off? I’m sure there are at least a dozen other countries that aren’t total shitholes where you can head right now and support yourself through a combination of English tutoring and online gambling. Some of those even offer free college to residents.*

I mean, you owe this country nothing. And likewise, the country owes you nothing in return. What the hell would you be discarding anyway? According to your eminently informed opinion, the engines are already on fire and the nose of the plane is pointed directly at the side of the mountain, so you should be bailing out waaaaay before college.

I wish I was in your shoes. I’d do it all differently. Fuck “normal”. Screw “standard” and “supposed to”.

Read the rest on Patreon.

Extremely Bad Advice: Stalking Victim Friend

Dear SJ,

My friend is being stalked.

I don’t know many details as he gets very tense and nervous talking about this, I can’t blame him. Firstly, he is a young adult and lives in a pretty rural area. He said this has been happening for months now. He is getting strange calls and a particular car is slowing down and looking at his house when it passes by. My friend knows a coder and somehow the coder was able to trace the number and the car together. Wait, it gets worse. He will leave his house and come back and the window in his bedroom is open. A lot of the time he will have a perfectly tidy room, come home and it is a mess. One time he cleaned the bathroom before he left to go somewhere, he came back home and the sink was dirty. 

I should probably add that he lives with his younger sibling and parents. The parents work and the sibling goes to school. One time he came back home and saw that on the top of a stack of papers he had laying on his desk suddenly had a piece of paper with his girlfriends home address on top. Also, his curtains had a hole cut through them and his box cutter was missing. I’m very worried for him. What should my friend do? Has anyone had something similar happen to them? His parents won’t take him seriously.

— Concerned for My “Friend” in Cheyenne

urban background lifestyle funny portrait of young paparazzi photographer man in action hidden behind city paper basket stalking for shooting exclusive photo story on celebrity

Dear Concerned,

Okay, first of all, you and your friend have nothing to be worried about. There’s no stalker.

Everything you’ve described has a perfectly logical explanation. And, as we often do when thinking about weird events, we invoke the Fermi Principle*, that the simplest explanation is often the right one. Nobody’s sneaking around, watching this friend of yours and breaking into his room to write cryptic addresses on scrap paper, cut holes in curtains, open windows, and leave excess pimple waste in the sink.

Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? Your friend is a nobody. He lives with parents and a younger sibling in a rural area. From the way you write, you’re probably both still under twenty, which means your friends about as worthy of stalking as some Holstein’s half-digested cud she’s burped back up and chewed on for the last half-hour. Why would anyone take any interest at all in this person, much less enough so that they would go to the trouble, for months at a time, to cruise the house? That’s not how stalkers do it.

We figure out an actually important person in our lives, maybe that principal who held us back in the tenth grade for no good reason (replacing the jelly in doughnuts with poo isn’t a good reason, in my opinion). Or that one girl who promised to keep writing while we were in prison and never did, and we follow them to plot our revenge. (We don’t actually do anything, remember. That would destroy the fantasy.) A stalker has to have some reason to avoid living their life like a sane person, and, frankly, from the sounds of it, your friend isn’t appealing enough to bridge that gap.

So what’s happening? Again, very simple: Your friend is making this all up. 

Read the rest on Patreon.

Extremely Bad Advice: License to Stay Home (?)

Dear SJ:

I’ve had a fear of cars/driving since my best friend died in a car accident. 

I recently turned 24 and started my ‘big girl’ job. one of the first things i did was buy a car that made me feel safe. I drive 1-2 miles at most but have not been able to go beyond that. I feel like whenever i get confident in my driving i back track and shut off again. I already took my written portion and just waiting to make my appointment for road test. I’m so tired of depending on people for rides to my JOB and sometimes even to the store if they’re beyond 2 miles. I don’t know what to do to feel better about driving and just do it. I feel like i go back and forth. I’m thinking of buying accessories for my car? I’m someone who finds comfort in little things that spark joy. I don’t know. I think my fear is now getting caught driving without a license. So i avoid going further than i need to. Any advice?? tips?

— Frightened in Flagstaff

Dear Frightened,

Listen, you’ve got nothing to worry about. I mean, what are the odds that two people you know are going to die in a car accident? One is usually rare in itself, and the fact that your friend took one for the team like that so you don’t have to live with the irrational fear that you will die in a car wreck, for the rest of your life, well, that should be celebrated, not bemoaned!

Statistically speaking, there’s about a 5% probability  that anyone will die before age 40.  (You know I’m making this all up, right?) So to think that two people would, those two people being your friend and you, is, like, … carry the 7… really small. You’re not gonna die in a car accident. You can just live your life from now on without worrying your pretty little head.

Read the rest on Patreon.