The Stories of Our Lives

Novelists get to choose their plot points, to weave efficient storylines without excess. At least that’s how it appears…

In reality, novelists know writing is mostly a reductive process: rounds and rounds of trimming out everything unnecessary. It’s these strategic cuts that put wonder and feeling into a story, that determine how wild the ride is for the characters and the reader. A nip here and a tuck there can change the color of a sunset and the depth of a dimple.

We are much the same, editing our stories as we remember them, inevitably turning history into fiction at the dinner table and in our diaries, simply by what we omit and include.

The mistake we make is that we refer to these edited, incomplete passages as truth rather than fiction. Holding tight to our beloved narratives, we no longer see the crumpled-up drafts at our feet, tattooed with redlines and cross-outs, rich with discarded endings.

These scraps and scrawlings can save you!

When your story is no longer working, bend down and flatten out one of those forgotten pages. If you look hard enough you will see through your cross-outs to the words underneath, words that become landmarks forming paragraphs plump with plot points, showing you things that really happened, offering a new angle and a new ending. What was of no use to you before may be just what you need right now.

Bring it back in.

Be comforted by the infallible notion that, just like a Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, you always produce more than you publish. And you own all the rights.

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What The Future Can Do

Recognize the power of visualization.

It’s not just a woo-woo thing. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s out there and what’s inside, and with enough blasts of the same image, your brain will actually change, physically, which means your perspective will change. You’ll see your problems in a different light and you’ll notice nascent, curled-up possibilities hiding in the shadows.

But there’s a catch. The key is not to visualize the SOLUTION. The SOLUTION, by definition, is wrapped inextricably with the PROBLEM, and whatever you do, you don’t want to focus on the PROBLEM. You already know where that leads.

The key is to visualize the IMPACT of the SOLUTION. IMPACT is further down the road and around the corner from the PROBLEM. IMPACT is the spinning girl in the tutu. It is the discotheque, thumping and glowing in rhythm.

If you want to finish that painting you’ve been stuck on, don’t picture yourself painting; see yourself sipping tea and watching people contemplate your message. Hear their thoughts, experience the emotions of living in that future.

If you’re building a product, don’t imagine the amazing features that will blow people away. Instead, look for the faces of the people who are improving their lives because of what you created. You know they’re out there!

The metaphysical, woo-woo part of all this is that, with a forced shift in focus in submission to sleight-of-hand street magic, your problem(s) will begin to fade.

The hardest part for us is to allow our brains and our hearts to realize that the past doesn’t have a monopoly on our well-being. The future shapes the present just the same.

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The Kindness of Strangers

I love the kindness of strangers. I seek it out, as an observer and a participant. It’s my religion: when the security guard calls me “boss,” the headlight flicker from the car behind me, the man who gave up his seat so I could be next to my daughter, the free cookie at the toy store, an unexpected graffiti affirmation above the urinal.

Isn’t love at it’s greatest when the giver gets nothing in return? And how many great things in the world do we have in such abundance, that will really truly never run out?

There are churches in the streets. Mass is in session. Miracles and magic are among us, we the creators and the gifted.

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Dogs, Lawns, & Decks

I’m embarrassed to admit, I let my dog’s hygiene get out of control. His hair got matted, he had a runaway cyst on his back, his eyes were all goopy and crusty. The days just got away from me and I’d go to bed thinking I’ll book a grooming appointment tomorrow.

But after so many days, he needed more than grooming. These things had to be handled by a vet, which cost us triple that of a groomer. Not to mention the shame…

Fortunately, Ziggy has forgiven me, though I struggle to forgive myself, just as I did when the deck needed sanding because I didn’t stain it and the lawn needed weed-whacking because I didn’t mow it.

MAINTENANCE is a series of little things, so easy to do that they often get skipped or, more to the point, repeatedly pushed down on our priority lists. But without MAINTENANCE, you’re headed for REPAIR, which is usually one or two big things (e.g. a vet visit or 2 hours of back-breaking lawn care).

Lawns, dogs, and decks aren’t alone in their need for maintenance. Relationships and careers need tending to as well, or else they become overgrown and splintered.

The very best time to do some soul searching is when you don’t feel like you need to. Things aren’t too far gone, your head’s in a good place, and, more than likely, the remedy won’t take too long to conjure and implement.

Take it from the career counselor with the big fat vet bill and the (thankfully) forgiving dog. Don’t wait. Make time to groom what you love.

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Running Patterns

Repetition is the origin of habit. So, in some ways, our jobs – inevitably repetitious to some degree – are formulas for the habits we see in our lives. The patterns we run at work migrate into our personal pursuits. The metaphors we use, the way we approach relationships, the methods of pursuing our goals, and our dreams at night are all influenced, indeed dictated, by the things we do over and over again during the day. We take our job titles home.

This is both the good news and the bad. Our workdays often feel like they are assigned to us as if we have no say in the matter. Jobs and tasks are obligations. Therefore the habits that come with them, they’re not ours because we didn’t choose them.

Not entirely true. An important axis is being overlooked. There is latitude in how we do our jobs, both in behavior and in thought. A teacher is required to hit certain milestones for her students (no choice) but she can run the class in a near-limitless amount of ways (choice). A custodian must sweep and mop the floors every day (no choice) but gets to determine the order, speed, posture, and pattern he uses and, perhaps most importantly, the song he whistles while pushing the broom (choice).

All jobs have parameters, rigid steps to follow, but there is airy space between those rungs. There is always a place to play a little bit, to leave your mark and make some patterns of your own.

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We Are All Cupcakes

One of my clients compared herself to a Hostess Cupcake. “I’m good and chocolatey on the outside but soft and gooey in the middle.” She was referring to the fact that she presents well but has insecurities people can’t see.

“That’s okay,” I said. “That’s how we all are.”

I’ve talked with thousands of people about their lives and careers and one truth about us is that we all have insecurities, soft spots other people don’t know about.

We are all cupcakes.

So, next time you’re looking to make a connection with someone important, let them enjoy your chocolatey goodness and invite them to have a little taste of your gooey center. It’s familiar territory, a common ingredient, the part that brings us closer together.

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Follow the Butterflies

I did a webinar this week and right before signing in, I got butterflies in my stomach. The same thing happens when I do karaoke, when writing to publishers, or whenever I enter a new room or prepare to have a difficult conversation.

The instinct is to retract, to get rid of the butterflies, to retreat from the expedition and get back to the tribe. But my fortress is all too familiar, the lines in the stone can only say so much, and the weather stays the same. Besides, once I know something is out there, that’s it. I can’t stop thinking about it and what it could mean.

Those butterflies. I know they’re still there because any time I get near the door, they start up again, like whirring electricity, making me glow from the inside so I can see just far enough ahead to wander into the woods. And eventually, I do.

I do the webinar, I get on stage, I walk into the room, and I have the conversation.

Here’s the thing: there are always beautiful things in the woods — bright, unearthly colors that amaze me and scare me, new species not yet logged in my book. And as I breathe in new air that hurts a little because I’m not used to it, and as I scoop up a handful of soil, foreign to my skin and eyes and nose, the sky shows itself through the canopy of trees.

It’s at this moment, standing in a column of invigorating light, hands covered with earth, that I must remember: it’s the butterflies that got me here.

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For the Good of the Play

If you ask a movie or TV producer for advice, they’ll tell you something like this: “Things will inevitably go wrong. Be ready to deal with that.”

With so many moving parts out of your control, you’re bound to find yourself in an unexpected, perhaps unwanted, situation that’s off script and out of bounds. In life, as on the stage, people don’t show up, leads forget their lines, the weather fails to cooperate, costs are higher than you budgeted, that scene took longer than you thought, and so on.

As they say, all the world’s a stage… but the show isn’t going to turn out as you planned. All you can do is surround yourself with people you trust, hold on to the underlying theme, embrace the unexpected, and (pun intended) roll with it.

With time, you’ll realize you’re better off when things go wrong; that’s when the characters learn something, when an even deeper theme arises.

Mistakes make for good plot twists; life edits itself. The best part of the play is always written in the margins.

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What Not To Wear

Moods don’t own us.

But we act as if they do.

When sad, we tend to let Sadness dictate our entire day: “I’m having a rough DAY.”

Anger is almost always followed by Guilt and then turned inwards: “I hate MYSELF when I’m angry!”

We only allow Impatience to leave on the condition that something outside changes: “When is this TRAFFIC going to let up?!”

In Heartache, we tend to act like we’re planning a vacation: “I’ll NEVER get over this.”

It’s almost as if the onset of a mood cues us to put on an outfit, when, in fact, a mood is less like a heavy jacket and more like a puff of vapor that we can pass right through. We should certainly pause to stand in it, feel it, inhale it, and accept its purpose, but then recognize that the mood is moving too, and, ultimately it will drift past.

All we have to do is not follow.

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Trailblazing vs Path Clearing

When we are thinking of doing something new, we often consider RESEARCH to be the starting point. One of our favorite things to do when approaching a new space is to ask someone else what they did and then ask them what they think we should do.

After all, we’re not looking to reinvent the wheel, right? So, we conduct informational interviews and troll Youtubers telling us of their paths to fame. We seek to find the expert, that person who has been there already.

This is a great idea, save for one simple thing: you are not that person.

As Morpheus said to Neo in the Matrix, “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

RESEARCH helps us to reveal paths that were already there. And that may be enough for some, but what I’ve noticed in working with people, and in my own ventures, is that seeing someone else’s well-cleared path is usually not sufficient to get us started. Indeed, it can have the opposite effect: the path becomes both necessary and unappealing and therefore turns into a roadblock. Ironically, KNOWING the path can prevent us from WALKING the path.

It doesn’t matter how gorgeous, safe, proven, or celebrated that path is, if you’re not walking it, it ain’t the path for you.

With new adventures, the most important tenet is forward motion, not smart planning, so think about what you most want to do, shave off a little piece of that thing, and do it. If you follow your own curiosity and not someone else’ “tired and true” instructions, it is inevitable that you will move forward. And, although it’s uncomfortable walking knee-deep in weeds and barbs unsure of what lies ahead, it beats the heck out of standing still.

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