March 2020: I am writing a long article about my observations and personal experience with the corona virus and subsequent lockdown but it is not ready yet. I have too much to say but far too many interruptions by my 24/7 lockdown roommates, my wife and young son. Inside China and throughout the world, this epidemic is a life-changing event; I want to record it. Cabin Fever: It’s getting pretty bad, especially as spring weather brings warmer temperatures and new flowering trees each week. Plus, I really, really crave some of my favorite fast foods. (Yes, you can tell from my words that I am relatively unharmed by the illness – and grateful for my good fortune.) Among the positive results of this health and economic disaster is a much greater appreciation for the lifestyle I enjoyed before the corona virus (Covid-19) required the suspension of many activities and freedoms. I selected an article from the archives (July 1, 2019) to republish for this week. The comments are still relevant – using our time wisely and well – but it is also a time capsule view of what now seems like a simpler time (before the current epidemic).
People who go through life without ever pausing to think about what they are doing with their life and, more importantly, why they are doing it, are to be envied. They rarely waste time on introspection or its evil twin, self-doubt. Early (very early) in the morning, after waking up and being unable to go back to sleep, is a dangerous time for a writer. That is the time when you begin to ask if what you are doing (writing) is having any effect on the rest of the world. Sometimes, it seems that you write and publish and write and publish and write and publish … but hear only crickets. This article is to explore some of those very-early-morning thoughts. I invite you to join me and the crickets.
It is widely accepted that becoming an expert in any field requires 10,000 hours of our best efforts. Surgeons and chefs, musicians and painters (and, presumably, writers) all require much time and dedicated effort to develop the skills that will make them a master in their field. The American writer Ernest Hemingway became famous with the success of his first novel. People considered him an overnight success. Yet, Hemingway talked about the previous years of submitting stories which were rejected, of developing his craft by working for newspapers and magazines, and countless mornings of taking only a pencil and notebook to a quiet café for writing and rewriting passages that never seemed to be exactly what he wanted to say. 10,000 hours indeed.
Yet, most people still think of Hemingway as an overnight success. In our fast-paced modern life, that is what we dream of. Our novels and movies tell us that it is possible to bypass that lengthy requirement and become successful quickly and easily; often, like Hemingway, our news sources seem to tell us that story also. (Sometimes, a bit of extraordinary luck or even magic is required but, hey, those are common events in the movies.) Contemporary media-created celebrities also appear to defy the 10,000 Hour Rule.
No one wants to face 10,000 hours of concentrated effort, of learning and making mistakes and starting over, of disappointments and failures; it’s much more comfortable to believe there must be a shorter, easier way. But, the truth is that, except for those extremely rare cases where a person really does become rich and famous overnight, the rest of us will have to keep making our tiny steps of progress and improvements. One day at a time. It may take years to become an overnight success.
I am a writer. I want to influence readers; I want to entertain, inform, and inspire them. After spending a lot of sleepless nights with the crickets for my only company, I have reached several conclusions which I will share with you.
First conclusion: It doesn’t matter. Our nominal reason for writing is to give information to a person when we are not present to speak to them. There is another reason, however: a quest for immortality. Think about those cave dwellers from thousands of years ago, leaving their handprints on the walls of their caves in an attempt to send a message to future generations – even if that message was merely, “I was here.”
Writers have such an ulterior motive. Yes, we want to entertain, inspire, or inform with our writing – and make some money. But, deep underneath, we have a desire to say something that will connect us with people in the present and in the future. We want someone to read our words and realize that we existed. As a writer, I treasure and venerate those of the craft who went before me. Some of my favorite books are from writers long dead. But their words live on and can still change lives. They have changed mine. My unspoken hope is that my words may change lives both today and in some distant future.
But the unpleasant truth is the vast majority of writers and their work are never widely known during their lifetime. A few years after their death, they are virtually forgotten. A generation later, any influence is almost completely extinguished because no one reads them or even knows their name. For example, how many of you reading this know of a single important event in your great-grandparents’ lives? If you do not know about your own family history, what chance do unrelated writers have of being read? Only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of all writers survive the test of time.
But, it doesn’t matter. Not really. Writers write because that is what writers do. If our chance of being read is small in our own lifetime, and minuscule after our passing, we write anyway. Besides, there is always the outlier, the winner of the lottery, the one who got struck by lightning and lived or who survived a plane crash. We tell ourselves that maybe we will be the one. Often, though, we are only talking to the crickets.
Second conclusion: What matters is what we say matters. If our lives and our words are terribly insignificant and temporary, we can still take a stand and declare that we consider something important. My words may not be reaching many people but it is important that I make the best effort I am capable of to touch them. The effort, not the end result, is what I can control. And, in doing so, I can be proud of myself. Perhaps I am merely an insignificant, tiny spark in a bright, unbounded Universe but I can unflinchingly be the best and brightest spark that is uniquely me.
Third conclusion: Our routines are what get us through the days and nights. Self-employed people such as writers have great flexibility and freedom to control our day’s activities. Inherent in this opportunity for individual creativity is the power to set our routines. A writer has the ability to review and change those routines and methods of productivity. Ideally, the more we learn about cause-and-effect thinking, consider viable alternatives, and learn by observing the examples of people around us (including online and in books), the better choices we will make.
But, the mirror image of that freedom is the danger of too-frequent shifting to new ways. Yes, there may be instances where a decision or a routine is revealed to be clearly wrong or even disastrous but, most of the time, we make changes in search of slight improvements, not big changes for avoiding the mistakes in our routines. Moderation in all things, also known as the Golden Mean, tells us to avoid extremes. It should also tell us to find something and stay with it.
I read recently that we should always be flexible and willing to change but, unless there is an overriding factor, we should commit to a system of routines and behaviors for a full year before we review it and make adjustments. One whole year with the same schedule and systems. Think of how much time, attention, and money you can save if you don’t change your system for a whole year: no review time, no adjustment time, no time to create new routines… and no time wasted on self-doubt and recriminations.
Fourth conclusion: Everyone is different in their need for creative control. Everyone has different levels of self-discipline. Everyone has different forms of rewards. Likewise, everyone has their own personal weaknesses and foibles. Since we are free to set our own routines, we can tailor our systems to allow maximum productivity and to avoid the perils of succumbing to our weaknesses.
For me, that is found in two mutually exclusive styles of working. Some days, I am highly structured with a clearly defined plan of my entire day completed before I arise. This eliminates any time for making decisions after I get up and start. I have all my projects and their next actions selected in advance. All I have to do it “work the plan”. I have minimal decisions on those days.
But, the other days, I find myself constantly answering the question, “What is the one thing that is the most important thing that I can do right now?” or “If I can only do six things in this block of space-time, which six things should they be?” On those alternate days, I may sit down and brainstorm some activities by asking myself, “If I was completely free today, what would I love to do?”
I get the benefits of both styles by alternating days. By combining the two completely different forms of planning my day, I avoid the twin dangers of burnout because of too many decisions and burnout because of too much structure. Somedays, the first system produces best; other days, the second system is more comfortable.
Fifth conclusion: Regardless of the task I choose, the most important thought in my mind is to finish what I begin. If it was important enough to begin, it is important enough to finish. There is something very satisfying about selecting, initiating, and completing a task completely. An additional benefit is that handling each task only once is vastly more efficient than working on the same task in many installments. It is an exercise in self-discipline to avoid the temptation of interruptions, distractions, and breaks.
A final thought: Most of the overnight successes burn out quickly. One-hit wonders in movies and music and those “right place at the right time” celebrities and lottery winners quickly drop out of sight. Look at the headlines from five years ago. Where are those people now?
As always, feel free to comment directly by email or in the field below. Welcome to join me and the crickets.