Scarcity confusion

I sat around last night envisioning myself on death’s door. What? Oh, sure, like I’m the only one who plays out morbid scenarios in their mind occasionally. Every once in a while, my subconscious shouts “hey, we’re gonna die someday. Wonder how that’ll play out?” and, being the overly creative fellow that I am, I oblige my psyche by fleshing out the grisly details. Did you know that Anthony Burgess, the author of “A Clockwork Orange”, was once diagnosed with terminal cancer and wrote 5 books in ONE YEAR so that his wife would have some kind of money after he kicked off. (As an aside, he got better from the terminal cancer). With that story for source material, and my ongoing unhappiness with my own work ethic, my imagination took off.

Last night’s mortality scenario included a prolonged stay in a hospital room where I was feverishly churning out new writing in a race against the clock. The small sense of pride that came from the idea of working hard in the face of death was an awkward sensation. Have to find the upside to everything,

But then I paused my daydream to give myself a reality check. Maybe, I’d be a little bit happier in the here and now if I put a little more effort into working while I wasn’t on my deathbed. To use an automotive metaphor, I am a car in 1st gear trying to go up a hill. Other cars are passing me because they are working harder. I’m content to putter up the hill because the road isn’t collapsing behind me, and the light at the top of the hill is going to stay green forever. But it’s not.

I know, I know, “time is short” is not a revelatory statement. You have to make do with what you have and get your priorities straight. That’s where my troubles lie. I’m wired to prioritize pleasure and comfort instead of meaningful work. Something from a long time ago, probably during childhood, convinced me that happiness and nice things are going to disappear, so I gorge on them. I eat every meal like a fatter, hungrier man is on his way to eat my food. I hate to pause a video game and leave the room for fear of it vanishing before I return.

So that’s where the scarcity confusion is, and where I need to put in some work. No one is coming to take my happiness away. There will be plenty of time for fun, I promise, but there are books to write first.(and laundry and dishes and vacuuming and volunteering).

Opportunity Costs and saying ‘no thanks’

Opportunity Cost: the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

What an interesting last 5 years it has been for me. You’ve been able to follow along my adventure here in the blog, as I discovered new possibilities and chased what must have seen at times as wildly divergent goals. It’s like I woke up after decades of dozing to realize that I had a lot more to offer the world than I thought, and still had time to do something about it.

So I started jumping at every chance that came by. I wanted to make a difference wherever anyone would let me. That’s an important distinction to make: I still felt, deep down, that I wasn’t really that useful (thanks, shoddy self-esteem) so I had to desperately leap at every opportunity.

I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that I haven’t found most of these volunteer efforts rewarding and educational, though. I have met fantastic people and experienced some real revelatory moments during the 5 year ‘say yes to everything’ binge. I’ve been part of some great teams, and I’ve finally become comfortable in the knowledge that my contribution to the team makes a difference.

But there have been a few less than stellar moments of frustration and fatigue. I’ve found myself in a few meetings torn between a guilty sense of not doing enough, and a profound desire to not take on any more work. It isn’t a fun internal conflict to manage. I felt pulled in a million directions without and sense of making progress. I was tired and unenthusiastic about my commitments.

The problem recently extended into my creative life. I had a handful of projects I could work on, and I started picking away at all of them, seemingly at random. One of the projects was a one-act play that I intended to stage in our Fringe festival next year. I wrote it up and did a read through with a friend of mine. later that night, as I started to compile the full list of all the work necessary to bring the script to the stage, I finally asked myself an important question: is producing this play going to move me closer to my goals? More importantly, what are my goals?

And lo! A bright light shone in my mind,  and clarity came storming in. As soon as I chose a goal (actually, a couple of them) I could now measure each opportunity against the cost to my progression. I stopped saying yes just because I could do it. I sat down and reviewed all of my standing commitments and asked “does this move me towards my goals? Is it a good fit for my life and am I a good fit for the organization?”. It was surprisingly hard to be so ruthlessly objective. I hate quitting anything, and I doubly hate letting anyone down. But I made a cut list, and I narrowed down my efforts. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll start looking at a couple of new opportunities, and they will have to meet the same criteria. I’m a talented guy but time is short and I have to make the most of it.

A very happy birthday

Birthdays have not traditionally been an enjoyable event for me. There has been a consistent sense of anxiety as the day approaches, a feeling that only intensified once the actual day started. It would all begin to escalate with a simple question “what do you want for your birthday?” This question honestly flummoxed me each and every time. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t know what actions or gifts would give me a happy birthday. I wanted to be happy, I really did, but I could not identify how to make that happen. Cue the stress, the irritation, and the depression.

There was a change this year. I found out how to be happy on my birthday (and possibly happy all the time). I can’t put my finger on the exact catalyst for this change, but there were a few things that stuck in my mind. The public (social media) birthday wishes from a few of my dear family members made mention of how creative I was and how they were excited for what I would create in upcoming year: my wife’s message was the perfect example of this. And my sister-in-law in Thunder Bay let me know that her 9-year-old had confiscated my novels from his mom so that he could read them himself, and he was chewing through the books with a voracious literary appetite.

It’s very important to note that my friends and family have always been supportive, more so than I’ve ever really acknowledged. And that’s the big change, the present I gave myself: I acknowledged that I have these wonderful people cheering me on. For the first time in my life (or as far as I can remember) I accepted the fact that I am loved and supported. By simply believing that, my birthday became one of real celebration. I didn’t need to spend the day hoping for proof or validation. My emotional foundation was set. My family loves me, my friends care for me, and I’m happy with who I am. The stress that usually haunts every minute of August 20 vanished. It was replaced by a calm optimism and joy. It’s pretty amazing.

Talk about your successes

Self-promotion is hard. For me it is, anyway. I envy anyone who can proudly march around and proclaim “Here is a thing I made! Look at it, experience it, and pay me money for it!”. In my ideal world, I toil away in cloistered quiet, writing one project after another. It sounds wonderful and it’s entirely unrealistic for two reasons.

1)Life costs money. A pile of unsold manuscripts doesn’t bring home the bacon (or the electricity or the roof over your head).

2)I need an audience. I love the stories that I write, but they don’t fully come to life until they are shared. And I need their feedback too,

The good news for me is that I do have an audience. You, the devoted readers of this too infrequently updated blog, are the people who have chosen to tune in and listen to me. Over the last few years, I’ve been able to share my observations, experiences, and general ramblings with all of you. And surprisingly, you keep coming back. So thank you!

So here’s what I would like from you, dear readers. As you know, I self-published my latest novel “The Patchwork Boy” in June. I am incredibly proud of it, and I want your help to promote it. Positive reviews are an independent author’s best friend. Each review on sites like Goodreads.comAmazon, or iTunes brings more attention and more potential readers to the book. I know that some of you are worried about writing a review, and trust me, I understand. But a review does not have to be as complex and verbose as a PhD thesis. A simple, to the point blurb does more to sell a book than you will ever know.

That’s your mission, should you choose to accept it: go write a quick review at one (or more), and let me know when it’s done. I cannot stress enough how much I value your support and encouragement, and I’m grateful for all the help you’ve given me before and in the future. Thanks again!

Press B to quit (for a little while)

Quietly storming out is so a strategy

I returned from a two-week vacation in the north of Ontario feeling tired but focused and triumphant. As the driver for this 18+ hour trip (each way) I had a clear purpose: keep the car moving. We had direction, we had a destination, we had a well-defined goal. And we reached our family goal, with almost no terror (a slight gas panic the only exception) and in remarkably good spirits. I felt pretty good.

And then I checked my email.

Suddenly, the long list of obligations and irritations came rushing at me, eroding away my peace of mind. Complaints and problems from some of the condo owners (I sit on the condo board). A variety of complications and issues with setting up the campaign office and team for this fall’s Federal election (I’m the association president). A profound lack of book sales during my absence (not surprising, given the nonexistent promotion I did for the book during that time). Negative online comments for a freelance article I did during vacation.I wasn’t writing anything. And on, and on. It felt like every area of my life that I devoted time to was producing nothing but problems. I was failing at a whole variety of tasks and duties.

I lost most of Sunday to this overwhelming feeling of failure. I couldn’t even pick out one part to fix, since working on one would mean ignoring all the others. I desperately wanted to get lost in a new video game, dive in and get immersed in an electronic world where I knew what to do and how to do it. Mental gridlock. Not a fun day.

Monday morning, I decided to do a little bit of quitting. And by that I mean, I quit everything frustrating for one day. Once the boy was off to summer day camp, and the dear wife was off to work, I tuned everything out and wrote. The dishes? Still dirty. The rogue neighbourhood cat? Still menacing gardens and befouling patios. The mysterious water leak that probably comes from our shower? Still unsolved. What I do have is progress on two separate story ideas, and a renewed sense of priorities. I can’t control all of the irritants and complications in life. It is unfair to judge myself by my success (or lack thereof) in resolving those complications.

I’m one guy, and I can only do so much. If I’m overwhelmed, it’s because I’m trying to fix everything at once. The lesson I’m learning today is:Put the to-do list to the side, take a deep breath, and give your passion top spot in your brain.

What “Inside Out” taught me

“All right! We did not die today, I call that an unqualified success.” – Fear

The family took me to the movies for father’s day, where we watched the newest Pixar movie “Inside Out”. I assumed that it would be another great movie from the folks at Disney/Pixar (and it was), with ample wisdom for my child to absorb at least a little bit of. What I wasn’t prepared for was the wisdom being one-size-fits-all, applicable for children and adults.

Here’s the premise in a nutshell (with a touch of spoiler): there’s a team of emotions steering your behaviour, and if a couple go missing, your psychological world is thrown into chaos. When we’re children, Joy is the dominant emotion and the desired state of affairs. As we age, it becomes more complex and can’t be painted with one emotional colour. Growing up means having experiences that have a multitude of emotions attached to them. You can’t just drive towards joy to the exclusion of every other feeling.

And that’s where insight leaped from child development to full-grown adult challenges. I realized that I can get stuck chasing unfiltered joy, and that’s an unattainable goal. In fact, chasing happiness that’s devoid of tinges of sadness, regret, fear, anger, etc… is an exercise in frustration. Not only does happiness elude you, so does contentment. You can’t go back to the monotone joy of childhood. And you wouldn’t want to, even if you could. The richness of human experience is built upon the totality of human emotion, both positive and negative. Take the sweet with the sour.

I’m also prone to letting Fear take the helm of my psyche, which can set the bar a little low for goals (see the opening quote above). I need to continue to work on integrating fear into the collaborative emotional team, making him a partner instead of a tyrant. Life will continue to have scary moments to it, but focusing solely on avoiding the things that I fear will keep me from some truly interesting and fulfilling opportunities. 3 cheers for less freaking out!

Positive Perspective

It’s funny how a simple choice of words can shift your perception.

I tend to be very critical of myself. Maybe that’s a natural state of affairs for humans, or maybe the well-adjusted among you don’t spend time berating yourself over missteps and missed opportunities. I’m not one to say.

I have a handful of talents, like any of you. I grade myself harshly on the application of those talents, looking at them as examples of my “wasted potential”. I think I rate them in terms of being able to use those skills “professionally” AKA “making money with them” which is a mug’s game from the start.

But a few weeks ago, my friend Dan gave my negative perspective a nudge. I had baked some cupcakes for our friend Jeff’s birthday, to share with the whole Friday night gaming group. The cupcakes were a hit with everyone, especially Dan. His exact words were: “Baking is definitely one of your un-nurtured talents.”

There is a world of difference between “wasted” and “un-nurtured”. I stopped regretting the current state of my abilities, and instead, I started to see the possibilities for growth. Every day you have a chance to nurture your talents and see them bloom into something wonderful: Why spend time beating yourself up over what you haven’t done with them so far? And for the love of crumbcake, don’t measure yourself against the money-making yardstick.