Ira Glass on making beginnings

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A great start to the New Year is this beautiful essay by Danny Gregory:

Beginning starts with a dream.

A dream to draw.

A dream to create.

A dream to play the ukelele. Speak Portuguese. Ride a bike. Lose five dress sizes.

A dream to be what you always wanted to be.

A dream to finally face that part of your life that you’ve avoided so long because it shames you or makes you feel weak.

You hold that dream in your mind, you caress it at night, you turn it over and over and wish it would come true. That you could do this thing you dreamed of, effortlessly, fluidly, joyously.

And with that dream of doing this one thing come dreams of doing other things, of being other things, of feeling strong, and competent, on top of your game, happy. Complete.

Achieving this one dream feels like it could mean achieving all those others as well.

This dream means so much to you that you hold it delicately, like an egg that could shatter and dash all your expectations of yourself. To pursue this dream could mean to fail and so you take a long time before you muster the courage to take the first step towards reaching it.

So, beginning, starts with a lot—too much—at stake.

And beginning starts in a realm you can only imagine, because you haven’t ever been there. You’ve seen other people achieve that dream. You’ve seen the drawings they’ve made, heard theme singing that aria, tasted the soufflé they whipped up so easily. And you think you know what that must be like. You think you know what the journey there must entail. If only you had the courage to actually begin.

But so far, all you really have is that dream, turning slowly in your mind, lit by thousand candles.

And then a day breaks, more sunny than the rest, a day that fills you with a new type of hope, and so you decide to begin. You breathe deep and pick up that pen. You sit down at that piano. You dive into the deep end of that pool.

You are filled with exhilaration and hope. Your dream glimmers on the horizon

And then as soon as you leap, you flounder and flinch. You gasp. You sink beneath the waves.

The water is colder, deeper, and darker than you’d ever imagined.

That first line that you have imagined in your head is finally on paper. That first chord thunders across the strings…

And it is flat and leaden and ugly, the work of a fool. Nothing like what you had seen in your dream. You flail and struggle on, despair sinking like clouds over the moon, plunging you into darkness.

And then, through the shadows, you hear the first righteous wails of the monkey. Wails? Or hoots and cackles? That voice in your head that delights in holding you back has finally fought its way through the lavender bushes and daisy fields that surround your dream, bringing with it an icy dose of ‘reality’. It delights at your failure, your hubris at thinking you—ugly you, stupid you, hopeless you—could do this thing.

It wraps a protective arm around your shoulder and starts to lead you back to safety.

“You don’t have to keep doing this,” it tells you. “It’s too hard. Your talents too meager. The teacher’s too incompetent. This isn’t really your fault. Just don’t try it again.”

That monkey is in your head to keep from risk, from new experiences, from growing. That monkey voice was implanted in you when you really needed it, when you had to have a warning voice to say, “you’ll put your eye out with that, you’ll break your neck, you’ll catch your death of the cold.”

New things still make that monkey scamper out of the darkness with alarm. The unknown, the challenging, the scary, the hard. Things that could make you cry.

And it has a hundred tools up its hairy sleeves to keep you in check and on the reservation. It can make you panic. It can make you beat yourself up. It can make you lash out at those around you. It can make you freeze and suck your thumb.

This what happens when your dream first meets reality. A rude awakening.

You feel shocked. You feel hopeless. You feel humiliated. You feel blind to the path ahead.

The monkey says, “See, this is why you haven’t done this before. Because. You. Can’t. Do. It.”

The monkey says, “Stop now, stop the pain, crawl back on shore. Go back to where you were.”

The sense of failure spreads beyond the task at the hand, this particular challenge.

The monkey uses this opportunity to tell you what a failure you have always been, at so many things throughout your life, at every new effort you ever undertake.

The monkey, of course, glides over all of the things you have accomplished, all the battles you’ve won since you took your very first step at 11 months. The monkey edits your life down to show you that you have done nothing but shit since birth.

You cry yourself to sleep.

You wake up, the sun shining. You are still you. But now you have learned one lesson.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts and you should never ever try again.

That lesson might be that the pain is temporary. That you can weather it. That you are now a day older, a day wiser and that challenge is still there to be conquered.

You regroup. You uncap your pen. You charge once more.

And this time (or the next time or the tenth time after that), you suddenly feel a shift. You look down at your sweaty paper and one part of one corner of one wretched drawing gleams with hope.

It’s good, that bit there.

Through all the mangled notes, one cord rings true. Amidst all the collapsed and burned cakes and pies, one crumb of one cookie tastes sweet.

You can do it.

You have seen the first shred of evidence that you don’t utterly suck to the core of your marrow.

Now, that glimmer of proof may actually have been there in your first or second drawing or concerto or cookie. But you missed it. That first shock the monkey dealt you, that first brutal wakeup call, made you temporarily blind and deaf. When you first stumble and crash to the ground, your head is ringing, your nose is bloodied, and you can’t see straight. You can’t assess your work, you can only cringe and cover your head.

But when the day comes that your vision clears, your objectivity returns, you will discover the value in what you have made, the beauty, the reward.

And now you can clutch on to that one sign of hope. You can continue even as you blunder through more mistakes, more beautiful, educational mistakes that teach you lessons galore with every ham-fisted stroke.

And that dream that started you off? It wasn’t wrong to have. Even though getting to that castle on the hill is harder going that you’d dreamt, you can look over your shoulder and see that you are getting higher and soon you are walking through clouds. That dream remains essential because it is the thing that keeps you going, especially when the going gets tough.

The monkey is still hanging on for dear life. He still claws at your shoulders and ears as you struggle forward. But his grip is weakening. His voice is dimming. He is wrong. You can do it if you will do it.

You just need to begin and keep on beginning and discover that it’s the journey that is the reward. The dream is just to keep you moving forward, a mirage, fantasy. It’s the journey makes you smarter and stronger and better and happier.

Now, what would you like to begin?

Learn more about Danny and view some great art here.

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Writing and speaking to get what you want

Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking

Clear writing is one sign of clear thinking.

I came across these writing tips from CS Lewis and they seem to apply just as well to thinking clearly as writing clearly.

  • 1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  • 2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  • 3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  • 4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
  • 5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Tip 1 – making clear what you mean implies you know what you mean. Take enough time so you are clear about what you mean which often means thinking about the effect your speech and words will have on your audience. Cut it down until, as far as is in your power, your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

Tip 2 – Long, vague words are helpful when you want your audience to add their own interpretation to what you are saying. If this isn’t your aim then be short and direct. That’s not a code for rude. It means saving their time and your time by using plain words for things.

Tip 3 – Say what happened. Say what you want to happen.

Tip 4 – My pet hate at the moment is people who describe something as “having a wow factor”. If you want to wow us then describe it so we are. We don’t want you to keep telling us your bank is ethical and has values, we want you to behave ethically and then we’ll come to believe it. Don’t tell us your project is exciting, describe it so we get excited. It’s almost a rule of life that the more you tell us how to feel the more we suspect it might not be really so.

Tip 5 – It’s not the “trip of a lifetime” until your life is over. The odd curse word works because it’s used sparingly. Swear, exaggerate or over egg your descriptions all the time and they lose power.

And, as ever, these tips apply most to how you talk to yourself. Clear speech and writing grow from the soil of clear thinking.

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Essex Life – August 2014

book review in Essex Life magazineA nice review from Jane. Published in Essex Life magazine – August 2014.

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How can I improve my focus?

There’s a great post on Quora right now by Stan Hayward on how to improve your focus.

Stan was born in 1930 and his post is well worth your time.

How can I improve my focus?

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Achieving Your Unlived Life

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance. Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever resolved on a diet, a course of yoga, and then quit on it? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

via Achieving Your Unlived Life.

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Glorious silence

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”

C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

Last Wednesday I realised two things. The first was I’d been sitting, absorbed in my work, in absolute silence for the last three hours with only a faint clucking from the chickens and the odd bit of traffic noise for company. And it was glorious.

Have you noticed how hard it is to find places without being assaulted by some soundscape or other? It’s like we’re so afraid of being quiet we’ll do anything to avoid it. More on this soon.

The second was that I’d not posted here for a few months. This is linked to my challenge for this year –  to have “No Goals for 2014” and wanting to make sure the experiment worked before posting about it. And more on this soon.

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Plan 2014 with the Foolscap Method

Sketching Nathanael Boehm via Compfight

Now all the New Year madness has passed it’s safe to come out and start thinking about how to make 2014 go your way.

There’s an interesting article over on Steven Pressfield’s site which you might like to look at:

The concept of the Foolscap comes from my friend Norm Stahl—one of my mentors—who once said to me “Steve, God made a single sheet of Foolscap to be exactly the right length to hold the whole outline of a novel.” So, the concept of the Foolscap Method is to conceive of your enterprise, whatever it is you’re trying to do, your ambition in a boiled down form that can be put on a single page, so that you boil it down to its absolute fundamentals, and you take it from A to Z. The whole thing is right there on one page, and I think it’s an absolute great way, Stelios, to divide a year.

Planning your year on a single sheet of paper (A4, come on Steve) as if you were planning a novel or a film – you are the hero, resistance tries to, well, resist you and your year becomes a three act {comedy, drama, tragedy} whatever. It’s a neat idea.

Take a look

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Three Ways To Find Your Core Personal Projects (for Introverts)

AvioncitosCreative Commons License José Manuel Ríos Valiente via Compfight

I’ve been reading Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain and she has some great advice for introverts who might be wondering how they fit in a world which seems to venerate noisy talking.

It’s not always so easy, it turns out, to identify your core personal projects. And it can be especially tough for introverts, who have spent so much of their lives conforming to extroverted norms that by the time they choose a career, or calling, it feels perfectly normal to ignore their own preferences.

I love this. My big takeaway from the book is we need to be much kinder to our introverts. The way we design work and teams needs to account for the one-third (at least) of people who have an introverted preference. These folks can spend much of their life having to act out of character. And if you are an introvert then it’s OK to be much kinder to yourself and design a life which brings out your strengths. (There’s a quiz here if you’re not sure).

So, if we lean towards the introverted end of the scale, how do we identify our core personal projects or things which fit us best as a priority for our time and effort?

She has three suggestions:

First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child. How did you answer the question of what you wanted to be when you grow up? The specific answer you gave may have been off the mark but the underlying impulse was not. If you wanted to be a fireman, what did a fireman mean to you? A good man who rescued people in distress? A daredevil? Or the simple pleasure of operating a truck? If you wanted to be a dancer, was it because you got to wear a costume or because you craved applause, or was it the pure joy of twirling around at lightning speed? You may have known more about who you were then, than you do now.

There is a good fit here with the exercise “Follow Your Joy”, the last one in the book. If you haven’t yet got your free Journal (look top right for the blue box) then grab it and you’ll find the “Follow Your Joy” worksheets at the back.

Susan Cain’s second suggestion:

Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to. At my law firm I never once volunteered to take on an extra corporate legal assignment, but I did spend a lot of time doing pro bono work for a non-profit woman’s leadership organisation. I also sat on several law firm committees dedicated to mentoring, training, and personal development for young lawyers in the firm. Now, as you can probably tell from this book, I am not the committee type. But the goals of those committees lit me up, so that’s what I did.

What lights you up? Where are you at your most involved or passionate? What are those activities which cause time to disappear AND have you in a better frame of mind afterwards? Follow where the clues lead.

The one I like best is her third suggestion:

Finally, pay attention to what you envy. Jealousy is an ugly emotion, but it tells the truth. You mostly envy those who have what you desire. I met my own envy after some of my former law school classmates got together and compared notes on alumni career tracks. They spoke with admiration and, yes, jealousy, of a classmate who argued regularly before the Supreme Court. At first I felt critical. More power to that classmate! I thought, congratulating myself on my magnanimity. Then I realised that my largesse came cheap, because I didn’t aspire to argue a case before the Supreme Court, or to any of the other accolades of lawyering.
When I asked myself whom I did envy, the answer came back instantly – my college classmates who’d grown up to be writers or psychologists. Today I’m pursuing my own version of both those roles.

Mark McGuiness at Lateral Action has this to say on a similar theme:

When a hero inspires you, it’s because he or she embodies something of your own creative potential.

Or, less generously, when you are downright jealous of your hero and wish you had what they have, it’s like a big finger pointing to what your work is.

Steven Pressfield in Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work

In my experience, when we project a quality or virtue onto another human being, we ourselves almost always already possess that quality, but we’re afraid to embrace (and to live) that truth.

Perhaps instead of asking What do I want? You ought to ask Who has something I’m jealous of? Again, a fertile source of clues about what your core personal projects could be.

Find out more about Susan Cain at The Power Of Introverts and take her quiz to help you understand your own preferences.

And there is lots more good stuff in Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking including much useful advice on being kind to yourself and how to thrive as an introvert in an extrovert world.

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A couple of useful links

Liquid Links Desirae via Compfight

You might like these:

Sometimes you can tell yourself things by writing them down so you notice them. That’s one side effect of Keeping a ‘Commonplace Book’ and it could build into a unique artefact to share with your family.

Get some tips from Austin Kleon about the usefulness of a simple daily log book.

Use Agile techniques to improve the results you get. Start with your Monday Vision.

And Janine has a handy “Purpose Pack” at Discover Your Why.

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