The Secret to Being an Interesting Writer

There is certainly no shortage of outlets if you’re a writer today. Writing is easy. Writing something new, interesting, compelling, time after time, is difficult. But what is it that makes writing interesting?

glowing-tube-1423139Take a look at the New York Times Bestsellers in nonfiction. What do they have in common? Here’s a hint: the information in those books did not just spontaneously appear in the writers’ minds. They had to seek it out.

The secret that nobody ever tells aspiring writers is that to be an interesting writer, you first have to be a prolific researcher.

Maybe it’s investigative journalism, maybe it’s archival research, maybe it’s a lab experiment, or maybe it’s a statistical analysis of some observed phenomenon. If you want to be able to tell a story no one else can tell, you’re going to have to do research.

My guess is that for really great reads, authors spend way more time—sometimes a lifetime—researching, than they do actually writing.

It can be frustrating to do research. As a writer your instinct is to want to write something, not read articles and interview people. If 80% of your piece is research, then 80% of your effort will produce nothing tangible. Frustrating.

I think the real secret to being an interesting writer is to remind yourself that you’re a writer even on days you don’t write anything.

 

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The New Serenity Prayer

I live in the moment, because that is all I have

I close my eyes and breath deep to remind me I am alive

I stand, bend, jump, clap and wave because I can

I think of those I love and who love me back and it makes me smile

I cannot predict the future, nor would I want to

I cannot control the future, but I can prepare for it

What comes my way I will deal with, and move on the best I can

I do not need much to be happy

I will survive no matter what

I will strive to make a difference

This moment is pure gold and I am grateful to have it

I will not live forever, but I will live now

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The Most Valuable Asset in the World

With a title such as that, I suppose you are expecting to learn about a special class of rare coins, trophy real estate in the south of France or natural gas exploration in the Marcellus oil field. No. The asset to which I refer is much more valuable. However, every coin that was ever collected, every property ever purchased and every cubic foot of natural gas ever extracted began with the investment of this asset. And no, it is not money. Money is simply a medium for exchanging one asset for another. In and of itself, money—those little pieces of paper with some ink on them—have very little intrinsic value. The asset to which I am referring is intrinsically very valuable.

Usually things that are valuable are scarce, only a few people have them and they tend to hoard it. Not this asset. Not only is it the most valuable asset in the world, but everyone has some of it. It is how we use it, spend it, invest it, that gives it its value. For this asset, while valuable, is also easily squandered. And once it is, it can never be replaced.

This asset is what Warren Buffett, Sam Walton and Bill Gates all used to amass their fortunes. And you have some of what they had when they started. But this asset is fickle. It can be worthless in the wrong hands and worth millions to those who know how to use it.

The asset to which I am referring of course is time. The great equalizer. The richest man in the world gets the same twenty-four hours a day you do. And everyone has some degree of freedom how they spend it. Even a person in prison can choose how they spend their time using their mind.

You can do what you want with your time: drink a beer, watch American Idol, read a book, work out, write a blog, start a charity. It is up to you. Just don’t lose sight of how precious it is. And if you do not think time is the most valuable asset in the world, just talk to a dying person. Ask them which one of their “real” assets is more valuable than the time they have left.

Time is flexible, up to a point. You can savior it, use it, invest it, share it or even squander it. The only thing you cannot do is save it up. It is like a coupon with an expiration date: use it or lose it. So, what are you going to do with your most valuable asset? The clock is ticking.

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The Starbucks Learning Curve

I went into the local Starbucks last week to order my usual drink: a grande caramel frappuccino with whipped cream. If you are not familiar with this drink, it is what you would order for your last meal were you ever to find yourself on death row. Heck, the calories alone might kill your before they got you to the table. It is my vice and I am sticking to it.

As I watched the young girl make my drink, I could tell it was her first day on the job. Her cluelessness was palpable. Her every movement punctuated with hesitation. And when she finally delivered my decedent delight, I noticed she had committed the ultimate sin of the frappuccino chef: she forgot the caramel topping. No big deal. I nicely asked her if she wouldn’t mind adding a little of the luscious brown sauce to the top of my whipped cream mound. After briefly apologizing for her “obvious” oversight, she did so with great alacrity.

Here is a truth we all have to come to terms with: we suck at something the first time we try it. In fact, we are usually so bad the first time out that we cannot even imagine a time when we will not suck at it. It is even worse when our initial incompetence is on public display for all to see. An accountant can hide in the back room and make their mistakes in private; a Barista cannot.

There is no doubt that I will one day soon walk into that Starbucks and witness that same young girl whip up a perfect frappacino while simultaneously juggling a dozen other responsibilities. Learning is like that. At first you cannot walk and then one day you are running a marathon.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that the initial incompetence we experience when trying something new does not last forever. In most instances it does not even last very long. But it is no doubt frustrating (and sometimes embarrassing). What it can never be is a deterrent to trying.

Michael Jordon got cut from his high school basketball team. Jerry Seinfeld froze on stage during his first standup comedy performance. We all suck at first; welcome to the club. Embrace it, just do not let it stop you from starting, and do not let it deter you from continuing on.

Your biggest fear is that you will suck in public, embarrass yourself in front of someone you know and be the laughing stock, forever. I hate to burst your bubble, but most people do not really care that you suck and they never give it another thought. Why? Because they know at some point in their past they sucked, and they may suck again in the future. And because it is just not that big of a deal. Go ahead and suck. Embrace the Starbucks Learning curve. Soon you will be making perfect frappacinos.

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The Secret of Superstars

Do you ever wonder what separates stars from superstars? What separates Michael Jordon from other great basketball players? What separates Tiger Woods from other great golfers?

It is easy to assume they are superstars because of their superior physical ability. I do not think so. During Michael Jordon’s career there was another basketball player many people would argue had superior physical skills to Michael’s. The player, Dominique Wilkins, was certainly a star during his career, but he was no Michael Jordon. And there are undoubtedly golfers who can out hit Tiger Woods on the golf course. Physical prowess alone cannot not explain it.

Maybe you think superstars have a stronger desire to win than everyone else. Superstars surly love to win, but winning is not what drives them. Stars are driven by the desire to win, not superstars. How can you tell the difference? It is easy. When stars win, they celebrate. For stars, winning is like climbing Mt Everest. It is a journey with a very definite destination: winning. Like the summit on Mt Everest, once they reach their destination they have achieved their goal and so they celebrate. Not so with superstars.

Superstars are not driven by the love of winning. That passion fades too quickly. No, superstars are driven by something much stronger. Superstars are driven by their hatred of losing. For them, competition is not like summiting a mountain, it is like running away from a monster. A monster called losing. And this monster never tires, never gives in and never stops chasing them. It is why their celebrations after winning are so short lived. They have to keep running.

The hatred of losing will drive a person further than the love of winning ever will. It is the curse (or the gift?) that the superstar possesses. It is the only thing that will make someone re-double their effort after they win. It is the necessary ingredient for super stardom.

Unfortunately you cannot pretend to hate losing to make yourself a superstar. It is either within you or it is not. The desire to keep running after you have won the race is not a part of many people. But do not despair. The superstar may win more often than everyone else, but it is likely the enjoy it less. Contentment is not part of the superstar’s existence.

So, the next time you wonder what it would be like to be a superstar, just know that you can actually beat them at something: enjoying winning. You should be content with that.

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The Death of Hope

Hugh Hefner (the founder of Playboy Magazine) once quipped that “marriage is the death of hope.” Without commenting on his observation, I would like to offer an alternative one. I think inertia is the death of hope.

If you have forgotten your high school physics, inertia is the property of matter by which the matter retains its state of rest or its velocity, so long as it is not acted upon by an external force. In simplified terms it means that whatever is happening is going to continue to happen unless something changes. There is even a grammatically incorrect aphorism for this phenomenon:

If you always do what you always done, you always get what you always got.

What is it that you want? More money, a challenging career, better health, a loving relationship? Whatever you are doing at this moment has not gotten you what you want. (If it did, you probably wouldn’t be longing for it.) To get it, something needs to change—that is obvious. So why doesn’t it? Inertia. Human beings succumb to inertia. We keep doing what we are doing unless something outside of us changes things.

Inertia explains why people stay in unfulfilling marriages and unfulfilling jobs. It also explains why people accomplish extraordinary things (like starting a charity) when befallen by some tragic event: the inertia is broken.

Inertia is insidious. It is patient, relentless and more difficult to break the longer it is at work. But it is worse than that, because inertia does its dastardly deed by killing hope. Take away a person’s money, they can earn more. Take away their hope and they is doomed.

Hope is an amazing thing. It can drive you to accomplish almost anything. People have started great businesses without money, without education and without experience. But never without hope. It is the only fuel you need. Whatever it is you want, you can start the journey to acquiring it if all you have is hope. Once hope is gone, all that is left is inertia.

I will not lie to you. Inertia is difficult to break on your own. Absent some external event, changing the course of your life by breaking your inertia is not easy. That is why getting fired from your job can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. Getting fired is definitely an external event that will break your inertia. My getting fired many years ago lead to me discovering my passion for writing. I doubt I would have four books published today had I not gotten fired all those years ago.

So, what can you do to try and break your inertia? While inertia kills hope, hope cannot kill inertia, but it can keep it at bay. You must nurture the hope. Nurture it to slow down the inertia just enough to do one thing: take action. Any action. Take one step in the direction of your hope. And then repeat: nurture the hope, take a step. That’s how it is with overcoming inertia: one step at a time. It’s all you can do on your own. There is no shortcut.

Nurture the hope. Take a step. Repeat. Don’t let the hope die.

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