There’s a blurry video from 1986 making its rounds on Instagram lately. Have you seen that old video clip of Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes interviewing Oprah?

In December of ’86 The Oprah Winfrey show had just launched and our beloved icon was just stepping on to the national stage. She discussed how to not allow failure to define you in one pithy answer.

In the segment, she says something I think we should pay close attention to.

Mike: So this show that’s just getting underway, nationally…

Oprah: It’ll do well.

Mike: And if it doesn’t?

Oprah: And if it doesn’t, I will still do well. I will do well because I’m not defined by a show.

Ya know, I think we are defined by the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat other people.

It would be wonderful to be acclaimed as this ya know, talk show host that’s made it. That would be wonderful. But if that doesn’t happen there are other important things in my life.

Wow, right?

Just the other day I was talking with a friend, and full disclosure, I was being a real Debbie Downer.

“If in 10 years I still don’t fulfill my dreams then I’ll give up and crawl into a hole.” Of course, that statement was fueled by stress and being overtired, but it was total bullshit. I’m never flipping giving up, dammit.

Then I watched this video again and realized my focus was in the wrong place.

Imagine shifting our mindsets so that this thing we’re trying to do doesn’t define us completely. That it becomes only a part of who we are.

It’s Easy to Get Caught Up in Defining Ourselves by Things.

In my quest to follow my dreams of becoming a writer, speaker, and changemaker, I’ve gone through an evolution. There have been times when things don’t go as I’d like them to and moments like the one I just described above where I’m negative or overwhelmed. This is because I’m putting too much weight on numbers or “things” and not the daily work of who I am and how I treat others.

My dream is bigger than one thing. And like Oprah, I know (even though I don’t always feel it) that I’ll be okay. More than okay, I’ll do well.

I want you to know that you will be okay, and you will do well too. Regardless of the outcome of whatever you’re doing now.

I believe that if we’re going to do well, we should take a quick look back at the last part of what she said. “I think we are defined by the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat other people.”

For me, the way I treat myself is often the part that falls apart. For others, it might be the other way around. In any case, there’s a balance there and some deep truth, not only about the value of a human being, but how we pursue our dreams. 

One of the biggest misconceptions of personal branding is that it pigeonholes you into being defined by something (a business, genre, service, product, etc.) that is too small to hold the wealth of your intricacies. Click To Tweet

You don’t have to be constrained by one thing that you’re doing. Even if your book doesn’t sell, or your artwork doesn’t get in a gallery—or whatever your personal version of success might be—you can still do well.

Part of that “doing well” mindset is defining yourself and your personal brand by WHO you are and not just the work you’re doing.

Your personal brand is your foundation. You build, demolish, rebuilt, remodel but the core of your values and vision for your life ground you in your truth. Truth that can adapt to whatever is next in your life or career.

Don’t believe me? Think of Oprah. This woman has had a personal brand from the start, she’s done a lot of different things and sometimes failed. But she is a force, an example of what someone with a clear, working vision for her life can do. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the odds that were stacked against her as a black woman in America, one who had to prove herself more times than she should’ve had too.

But she did it, because she knew where she wanted to go and she kept at it. Even if she failed, she’d do well. And well she did.

The Other Side of Our Humanness

One of the things I love about Oprah, is despite her sometimes showwomanship, is that she breaks through and shows her true self, her vulnerable, flawed, and beautiful self.

So while that segment of the interview contained powerful truthtelling, I’d like to show you the context of that question and answer, a little before and after. (Don’t worry it’s only ~2.5 min).

A couple of things stood out to me. First, Oprah’s open insecurity about her weight, her appearance, and all she had to overcome in order to get her own show in 1986. And then Mike Wallace’s dick comment about a “fella” and Oprah’s visible discomfort at having to publicly define her love life. At having to guess at when her knight may come. And the weight comes up again.

Maybe it’s because I’ve gained 40 lbs since setting out toward my dream, but I so feel her struggle there. We all have our demons we’re wrestling, but weight is one of those not so easily hidden as others. As a woman, there are many times where I feel like a fraud because of my weight—like why should anyone listen to this chubby girl? Like I have to explain my weight gain, or call it out before someone else does, or like Oprah, wonder if [insert thing I want] will come along, once I lose some pounds.

Of course, that’s where her reminder—how someone treats themselves—comes in.

It’s also what’s so beautiful about this longer version of the video. She is clearly a badass and she is clearly human.

You can be both.

So I’d like to break down her wisdom and vulnerability into a quick list of affirmations for us (for the next time we’re tying our worth to a thing):

1. I am not defined by this _____________ (book, show, job, etc.).

2. I have other important things in my life (friends, family, travel, helping others, etc.).

3. I’m not perfect. I’m human.

4. I am defined by how I treat myself.

5. I am defined by how I treat others.

Let’s let the power of love and purpose define us as we run like hell toward our dreams.


This week we watched the long-awaited Incredibles 2 and it got me thinking about what will it take to change things in our world, and our own lives. 

Fourteen years after the original film, I wondered how this new addition would be different. After all in 2004 (when the first film came out), things like smartphones, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook weren’t really a thing yet, Trump had only just started a new TV show called The Apprentice, and George W. Bush had just been re-elected.

Boy, those were the good ol’ days, huh? Bwahaha.

The Incredibles sequel did not disappoint. It was a great film. While it touched lightly on a couple of specific political and societal issues—including our current obsessions with screens and escapism—it definitely danced (with skill) around some pretty deep philosophical struggles as well.

With all that’s going on in our world right now, I sometimes struggle with balancing what I need and want in my own life versus the chaos and very real threats to others. Indeed, this is a moral and ethical dilemma that many an open-eyed human has been wrestling with since humanity began.

And one that the Incredibles struggle with in the film, namely:

How do you save the world while still keeping your own family safe, fed, and cared for? And if you have the power to change things, how can you NOT use it?

Without giving away too much, there was a primary argument in the beginning that I’d like to unpack a little bit, because I think it’s important right now (and always).

Early on in the movie the Parr family is faced with their ever-present struggle to do good in the world while in that very act (of using their powers) is illegal. (If you’ve never seen the Incredibles, superheroes are outlawed and must live like regular people, unable to use their powers). Parents Helen (Elastigirl) and Bob (Mr. Incredible), wrestle with whether breaking the law by fighting crime, in order to prove why the law should change is ethical, and whether a law’s morality is a big enough reason to defy it. In essence, how far can a law go before we defy it? And where do we draw the line?

On top of that, what happens to their family if they get in trouble for breaking said laws? Who will care for their equally super children?

I believe the U.S. is in the state it’s in partially because too many of us have been too apathetic, naive, or privileged, for too long. But also, and this is important, because those in power want to keep it that way.

Now I don’t want to go down a political spiral here, and I’m not advocating for going out and breaking laws. What I want to do is bring this back around to how we think about our lives, our creativity, and our money-making endeavors. Because all of this is actually governed by what goes on between our own two ears.

I hope you’ll forgive the borrowing, but as the saying goes “If you see something, say something.” This follows not only for the horrors of human-trafficking, and children being ripped from their parents at the U.S. border, but for all of our very lives.

What I see and what I must say is this: we need more compassionate, driven people to continue to step up, break some boundaries (maybe even laws) and build lives, businesses, and true leadership around the value of life, in all its… Click To Tweet

For too long, we’ve followed the rules of how we “should” do things. It’s time to make our way into higher levels of thinking (and doing).

This can be hard if you’re struggling just to handle your own life, finances, and family. Like it is for so many of us!  I get it. Boy, do I get it. Sprinkle in some anxiety or depression in there too and you’ve got a recipe for paralysis. Naptime, please!

But let me tell you something that’s saved me over the years—through some serious shit. Something I didn’t have a name for, didn’t even know I consciously had until a couple of years ago when I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset, The New Psychology of Success.

It’s called a growth mindset. And while I’ve totally struggled with a negative or limited mindset a ton, I’ve had enough of this growth mindset to at least get me this far.

In her book Dweck explores what she has observed and studied to be two basic mindsets that folks have: either growth or fixed.  As Maria Popova puts it in her excellent overview, the book is, “an inquiry into the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.”

Our beliefs about limitations, abilities, and even laws shape how we live our lives and determine where and how far we will go.

A fixed mindset dictates that our intelligence, personality, creativity, and overall potential are pretty much set. In other words, we can make some changes, but essentially, we are limited by what we were born with.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, loves a challenge and looks at failure not as evidence of our ineptitude, but as a tool for growth, a way to learn.

As you might imagine, those with a growth mindset tend to be more successful, have better relationships, and are generally happier.

Now, if like me you have a mix of the two mindsets, your first thought might be, “well, hey we have to be realistic about what our limitations might be.” To that, for now, I’ll say, read the book.

But then your next question might be, “Okay, but can I actually change my mindset?”

Of course that question is the fixed mindset talking, but yes, yes you can. And in fact, shifting your mindset can really free up your life. Dweck writes, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

And there’s where we shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot. The more I try to prove myself competent the further I move from actually improving myself.

So what does this have to do with the Incredibles?

We are beginning to open our eyes further to the things that must change in our country and world, the laws, the practices, the atrocities; which is very important.


But what about the invisible laws at work within our personal lives? Unspoken personal laws, like:

I can only make a living at a 9-5 job,

I’m not smart enough to go back to school,

I’m too busy to write that book,

I’m too fat/ugly/boring to find someone to love me,

or someday when X happens things will be different.

Or this card that perfectly sums up some of my own moments of negative self-talk:

Available at EmilyMcDowell.com

 

What are the corrupt “laws” in your life that keep you from living up to your dreams?

Is it worth defying them? What will it take to change things? And is breaking those “laws” part of making your (and possibly others’) life better and more fulfilling?

I believe that real change starts within our own hearts and minds and if we’re going to change the world we must change ourselves. Conversely, though the time we’re in might seem dark, we must believe that things can change, that life is not limited by the self-centered rants and raids of megalomaniacs, that goodness can prevail.

Because if we don’t believe that, what’s the point? We must reclaim a growth mindset.

It’s the gift that has gotten me through some of the darkest times in my life. The belief that things can change, that our lives are not yet written, that we can still grow. Click To Tweet

I encourage you to watch Incredibles 2 and think about what your own superpowers may be—because you do have some. I also encourage you to read (or listen to) Mindset, The New Psychology of Success and think about what laws in your own thinking must be broken in order to live the life you truly want.

 

Post Photo by Alejandro Alvarez on Unsplash

​There are two stickers in my office that I received at last year’s Craft + Commerce conference which say, “Create Every Day” and “Teach Everything You Know.” I find these two mottos so important to how we writers and creatives establish ourselves and how we go about being the champions of our own work.

Teach Everything You Know.

Teaching is a great way to help others. But I find that teaching is also good for your own creativity and confidence. Not only do you help others with the knowledge you’ve gained, but in teaching you come to realize that you likely know a lot more than you thought you did.

But there’s something especially vulnerable about the “everything you know” part of the above declaration.

teach-everything-sticker

It can seem scary. Because if you teach everything you know, will there be any use for you in the market? Shouldn’t you keep some stuff for yourself? As protection against becoming a commodity?

 

And herein lies the sleeping monster. The inadequacy monster. The voice inside that says, don’t tell them what you know, they’ll steal it. They’ll do better than you. They’ll steal everything you’ve built. But this line of thinking stems from the sub-level belief that you’re just not good enough, or you’re just inadequate.

I know that voice intimately, though I’ve learned how to better tell it to shut the hell up. Not always of course, I’m human. And I have my triggers. But the point is, there’s hope for muting that voice.
I've found that when your worth is based on the amalgam of who you are and not just what you do, that's something no one can take away from you. Click To Tweet
Now, I’m not saying you should tell everything to everyone. Obviously, if you have an idea you want to protect that’s fine.

Maybe I’m wrong, but the “everything you know” part is more about sharing the breakthroughs you have, or the methods. Or even choosing who you want to teach that “everything” to.

Think of authors or artists you admire. Even if Mary Karr taught me everything she knows, I would not become her. Even if I knew all of her philosophies and methods, the work I’d produce would either be a bad copy of her work, or something uniquely my own built using methods she shared. You can bet if Mary Karr wanted to teach me, I’d be there, ready and willing, but always with the knowledge that I still have to do the work and that I still have my own voice in the world.

Now of course there are those who are just copycats, who steal and duplicate. And it stings when they do it to you because it is a wretched thing to do. But they will never BE you. They will never have your dare I say god-given talents, perspective, and creativity.

They operate from a place of lack (lack of resources, lack of confidence, lack of ethics). And when someone steals from you, it’s normal that the inadequacy monster screams in your ear to get back at them, or do the same. But you don’t have to. Because there’s more to you than that.

Imagine what would happen if we creatives spent a bit less time worrying about losing our worth and channeled that power into deepening the value of our work and who we are. Click To Tweet

We would be more successful. We’d create work that is uniquely ours, untouchable by other hands.​

This is the heart of my philosophy when it comes to branding, selling, or marketing yourself: the more deeply rooted you are in the healthy soil of your own craft and self-worth, the easier it will be for others to see it and be attracted to it. And that’s where the create everyday comes in.

what to do when you feel inadequate

Create Everyday

create-every-day

I also have a t-shirt from the conference. 😉

While we may not always have time to write or get creative EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. It’s still an important habit to strive for–even if that creativity doesn’t exactly have to do with your designated projects.

I think it’s especially important to indulge in creative play every day, whether that’s dancing, or writing free-form stream of consciousness stuff you’ll never publish, or painting ceramics, or planting in your backyard. These types of unfocused creativity can be mindful practices. And mindful practices open up space for us to make breakthroughs in creative work.

Some would even say that it’s in that regular practice of our creative work that our muse, genius, or best ideas come.

And that’s when another voice shows up, your own untouched soul voice, the one that is unphased by life’s barbs, the one that says, great job, this is good, this is important, you were put on this earth to do this. The more this voice is active, the better and more ‘you’ you become.

It’s a powerful thing to fulfill your purpose(s).
There's a feeling like no other that comes from sloughing off the dark death of inadequacy and lack and moving about in the light, flexible warmth of doing the work you're meant to do. Click To Tweet
I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about that. Maybe even sit down in a quiet place and make a list of the things that you like about yourself and your work, and then another list of what you want to get better at and possibly a third, of ideas of how you could make creative play a bigger part of your life.

In the end, we have a short time on this planet and I don’t know about you, but I want to make the fricken’ best of it.

 

In Seth Godin’s latest book What to Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn) he talks about how the radical cultural and economic changes of the past 10-20 years have created room for a very different type of work to emerge. With increased access to tools that once didn’t exist, we artists and dreamers have more opportunities to shine while also making a living.

But with increased digital resources, why do so few of us actually commit to living out these dreams? And I mean REALLY commit to it.

Sure there are the hangers on to days gone by, the ones who refuse to flex to history’s flow and stay rigidly rooted in their ruts, but what about the rest of us?

As with most limitations I think it comes back to fear, fear of the unknown, of failure, or even fear of success. However, there’s another facet: what it actually means to live in a state of tension.

When I think about it, there’s one thing we often run from in our modern society, it’s tension.

We don’t want to endure the tension of waiting to find out if we got likes on that Facebook post so we open the app for the fifteenth time today; we don’t want to wait for the finale of our favorite TV show so we binge watch, and we don’t want to sit through the news to hear the key headlines so we go online and consume, consume, consume.

Seth asks the question, “What happens to your work if you’re able to wait a little longer?”

Think of the last great novel you read or movie you saw, do they work because the tension is relieved in the first chapter, or scene, or because it builds throughout and resolves only near the end?

I’m totally guilty of avoiding tension, or at least I have been historically. I’m the type of person who decides, then does, and wants immediate results. It’s in my nature, or the very least my habit, and it’s part of what makes me a go-getter. But it’s also hurt me when I’m too impatient to see something through. Sometimes I need to pace myself, or remind myself that there’s also value in the in between.

In fact, most of our lives are lived in the in between.

So I ask, what might we miss out on if we only ever take the easier, more immediately rewarding path, or grasp at only low-hanging fruit?


While I don’t think we should view our creative work in too precious a light, I think there’s a lot to learn about the art of living from the natural course of nature.

Me, age 17, at thirty-six weeks along with my son. 1998, Michigan. Also, why did I pose in front of a giant white teddy bear?

When I was pregnant with my first child (my son) a nurse gave me the news that pregnancy isn’t really nine months like everyone says, it’s really more like ten–if you think about the fact that it’s 40 whole weeks, that is. Of course this is wonky math, but when you’re headed down a road where this being inside you hijacks your digestive, hormone, endocrine, and immune system for almost a year, you start counting weeks.

I was seventeen, newly married, and living in BFE—or rather Michigan—far from my family in California trying to imagine just how long nine months would feel. During my first trimester, I was barfing around three times a day and could barely keep the occasional saltine down. I was also working full-time as a preschool teacher, while my then husband went to school and also worked.

At my one of my first checkups, I sat on the crinkly paper atop the table waiting for my midwife to step into the exam room. I studied a nearby poster with illustrated renderings of each month of pregnancy.

At ten weeks along,  I learned that my baby now had the beginnings of little feet and hands and even a heartbeat, though he was the size of a bean. The largest illustration on the poster was a cross-section of a uterus containing a baby so big that it seemed to defy physical probability.  I wondered where the heck would my intestines and bladder go once this monster baby took over my torso. 

I was excited about my baby, but worried about how this long journey, and feats of internal physical contortion would pan out. The thought that grounded me was this: women and babies had been partnering in this dance for tens of thousands of years. We would both be okay.

With a knock on the door, my midwife walked popped her head in. She was a kind-eyed black woman who just exuded the feeling of calm. I felt better just seeing her face. She had this maternal way of being that helped the lonely seventeen-year old me relax a bit.

Asking how I was feeling she pulled out a heart monitor device out, rubbed it against her hand to warm it up and placed it low on my belly. I heard my heartbeat first and then a faster, lighter beat. To that point, having a baby felt mostly like sore boobs and round the clock nausea and not much else. But in that moment, it got real. My baby was real. That was the moment I became a mother.

In the coming months, I worried a lot. About things I had no control over, like first whether he would form correctly, until the ultrasound confirmed everything was normal, then I worried about whether he’d have a giant birthmark across his face or something awful the ultrasound couldn’t detect.

I felt kind of helpless but also in awe that my body and my baby’s body knew what to do. Even if I didn’t.

Of course, I could control what I put in my body and what I exposed myself to, which I did, with vigilance. But everything else was up to the workings of two bodies partnering in a dance that nature itself had perfected.

Just after he was born. Me and my son. You can thank the Nineties and scrapbooking for the beautiful design of my couch and the background, respectively. 😉

As much as I yearned to hold my baby boy in my arms and see his little face, I knew nature must run its course. I knew he had to stay in until he was done baking. And he did, even stayed in an extra week for good measure. Lucky me. Then he emerged fully formed, perfect. Indeed, lucky us.

Maybe our dreams, our goals, the good work we aim to do in this life can be viewed through a pregnancy analogy. Things mature in their own time, or become fully realized as they’re meant to. The problem is, we don’t always know when the appointed time of our dreams birthing. Sometimes you have to push hard at the right time, but there’s also a beauty in the expectation and tension of something truly wonderful materializing through perseverance.

Life is anything but predictable, and sadly just like pregnancy, things don’t always go the way we want. Sometimes, we do our best and things still don’t work. Sometimes, it does.

The truth is we don’t have control over outcomes, only the grit and work we put in. At a certain point we must dust off our hands and acknowledge when we’ve done our best. We’ve honored our calling. And leave the rest to nature, or the Universe, or God, or whatever you believe in.

I try to bring myself back to this when I feel myself vibrating at light-speed, revving for action right away, or when I’m down on myself, feeling like I’ve failed yet again. Tension isn’t necessarily comfortable, but I’m working on allowing it to move through me as opposed to allowing it to knock me down.

Sometimes it’s better to just take action and get shit done. Other times its worth it to work on something for as long as it takes to get it where it needs to be. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or a loser, or lazy. It’s one of those mysteries of life that we must hold with open hands.

As I set my intentions each day, I’m going to be working on being more at peace with the natural tension it takes to create something worthwhile. I hope this idea helps you right at the moment you might need it.

In the spirit of apparently being in almost every pic in this post, here’s me with Seth’s book. You should go buy it. 😉

I want to talk about something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week, namely: perceptions of reality. You know, something light and airy. 😉

Seriously though, as writers and creative-types we are often so intimately oriented with our own work that we have trouble articulating why someone else should care about it. Okay, maybe you’ve never felt this way. But I know I have.

Maybe you’ve feel like the inherent virtue of your art should be obviousI mean you love it! Everyone should! Or maybe you can’t even imagine how someone could appreciate our work. You like it, but you can’t help but see the flaws. Or maybe you think that you’re the only one who would like this kind of thing.

Or maybe—and this kind of thinking is even more insidious—you think that it can’t be both True Art and commercially viable.

In any of these scenarios, there’s a problem of perception. Whether we think highly of our work, find it always lacking, or wrestle with making True Art while trying to pay the bills—we’re focused on our own reality. We’re looking down at our own work in our own little bubble-world, trying to find a solution there, meanwhile the real solution doesn’t live there. It’s out there in the world, where we aren’t looking.

Introspection is important; and I would argue that it’s essential to understanding why your work is valuable. But sometimes we need to burst our own bubbles and try to step into another’s perception bubble so we can gain insight.

One of the biggest challenges I see writers and creatives face is how to get people to buy-in to what they are creating.

Where the Answer Isn’t

Much of the time, I think we’re looking for a formula or tip or trick to connect with a larger audience. Like if only our Instagram was better, or we did live videos on Facebook, or whatever, that would be the missing key to stardom.

I don’t think the answer lies in formulas. That’s not to say that you can’t learn how to be a better Instagramer, or utilize effective tools to get out there in front of the right people. It just means maybe we’d gain a whole lot more insight by understanding how our ideal market thinks and sees the world.

How Different We Can Be

My ex-husband was a philosopher and when we were still together a loooong time ago, he studied philosophy at Berkeley. Over many a family dinner, and the subsequent wiping off of our toddlers faces and sweeping up of floors after they ate like adorable human tornadoes, we often discussed existential conundrums and the very nature of reality itself.

To him—and let’s face it, if you take philosophy studies to their logical end points—there is no such thing as an objective reality. This eventually led him to a more nihilistic and hedonistic life-in-practice.

My ex was and likely remains—I’m sure he’d admit—a man of extremes. But I will say this, he lived what he believed, for better or worse (mostly worse—​you’ll understand when my memoir is finished, haha). This was one of the things that initially most attracted me to him, but ultimately one of the things that tore us apart. Without sounding like a complete ex-basher, it seemed to me that he felt his perception of reality (and the lack there of) was Truth, even though that according to him also did not exist.

And of course, I thought that my perception of reality was the more correct one. As a young stay-at-home mom of two toddlers, my reality of stuffed animals, runny noses, dirty diapers, park play-dates, and laundry looked very different than his reality of graduate school classes, commutes listening to audio books, and late night study sessions.

I had no use for reality as a philosophical construct, I was living it in the scrubbing of the bathtub, in the soft cuddles with my babies’s sweet little bodies, in the changing of diapers that smelled like garbage burritos, and in the giant, beautiful eyes of my children that looked at me each day with pure love and expectation to give them the very best of myself. I was living in the world of the visceral, corporeal, and sometimes even somatic.

As much as I don’t  want to drag my ex into anything, I tell you this snippet from my life because I want to acknowledge how different two perspectives can be—even in a relationship between two people who live in the same home.

And when two very disparate perspectives are not bridged, relationships can be torn apart, art doesn’t get appreciated,  and megalomaniacs can get elected to office. 

Okay, okay I’ll get back on track…but you get what I mean.

~

Balancing Perspectives and Who You Want to Be Around

The older I get the more I realize I don’t want to waste my time with people who are at odds with my core values. Maybe that’s an asshole thing to say, but it’s what I feel. And yet, I also see this deeply divided America (and world) and try to figure out ways to reach out and heal our communities, and understand each other better,  without compromising my own values.

When it comes to our art, our work, our business, I think there’s definitely virtue and even a call in trying to connect with new audiences, but I think it’s often more helpful to start with the people you really want to work with, or help.

In other words, I believe our time is better spent working to connect with the kinds of people we want to work with or be around, rather than trying to appeal to everyone.

How to Get People to Care About Your Art

As an artist, if you/we want to get people to care about your art, you must do the hard work of stepping outside of your own perspective bubble and consider what it’s like to live in another body, another life. I think this kind of experimentation isn’t just useful for helping us connect more effectively with our ideal customers and readers, but for our own edification as human beings, as well. It’s not always an easy thing to do, however.

If you’re interested in thinking and learning more about this idea of working to understand other’s perceptions of reality I encourage you to check out these two episodes of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast. As ever, your perception of reality will expand simply by listening, but there are also some valuable ideas on how to step out of your own narrow rut of thinking in order to see what others might see. The more we understand how others think, the easier it will be to communicate the value of our art/work.

If you really believe in the power and/or value of your work, I encourage you to find ways to help others see what you do. But paradoxically of course, being able to do that requires standing in their shoes, and attempting to shed your own perceptions enough to view at least some of how they perceive the world.

And here’s the thing, it’s never like you’ve arrived and now understand everything about how others perceive the world. But the more we make an attempt to understand what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin, the more we become better humans.

We become more compassionate, understanding beings who create better, more insightful, powerful ‘doings.’


If you’re having trouble connecting your work with the right customers or fans, I’m here to help. Of course, there are plenty of free resources here on my blog and site (and weekly email list), but if you feel like you could use some one-on-one time to work through this challenge, I offer both à la carte one-on-one consultations, and longer-term one-on-one coaching where I can help you discover new ways to break through the confusion and start reaching your amazing audience, right where they are.


 

I love a ton of @lewishowes stuff! But this recent “5 Tips to an Amazing Year” Instagram post felt, well, like something geared toward someone who is already well on the path (or has their shit together) and not someone who maybe is struggling with some big life-shattering things, but is still trying to live their dreams. Since I’ve been in that horrid place more than once I wanted to give something to those who find themselves there right now.

lewis-howes-amazing-year-instgram

(Lewis Howes’ Instagram post that inspired this)

So with total mad respect (still think you’re awesome, Lewis), I humbly submit my altered version for those who are just trying to stabilize first, then kick ass:Andrea Guevara 5 tips to better year for people going through it

 

1. One “Big” Health Change

It’s true that when we’re in our best health, mentally and physically, we can do SO much more. But if you’re under a ton of stress, or are sick, or have some big hurdles that just make being in your best health almost impossible, do ONE significant thing this year for your health. And when I say “big” I don’t mean try to do it all. Whatever will help you get on a healthier track—do that. Use it as a stepping stone. Maybe it’s eating meat only on the weekend, or walk three times a week, or go to therapy. Whatever it is, start small, the rest will come later.

2. Shift Focus & Stop Comparison

When you’re under major stress, loss of focus is one of the first things that sabotages your ability to move on, or find solutions. Comparing yourself to others is right up there too. I encourage you to focus on the things that bring you the best results with the least strain. Maybe that’s hanging out with friends who get you, rather than trying to make the other ones to understand what you’re going through; or maybe that’s reading instead of watching TV to calm your brain at the end of the day; or maybe that’s taking a damn nap instead of cleaning the living room. And for F’s sake, don’t look at anyone else’s life in comparison to yours—just keep your eyes on what’s next for you.

3. Two-Step Vent

You have to let your stress, hurt, and frustration out. Make a pact with yourself that you’ll vent to a trusted friend (or therapist) and get it all out and then, when you’re done, find something good in your life that you can grasp back on to. This two-step will help you recover faster and speed up the process of ridding your mind of the negative loop of thoughts we all get caught in.

4. Be a little nicer every day to you

(To yourself that is) Maybe you’re in a marathon situation, one where you must work to keep the roof over your head, or must be there for a loved one at all hours, or whatever. You can’t really take a proper break. If you are in this situation, take micro-vacations. I’m talking 5 minutes here, a half an hour there where you do something completely for yourself. Rock out to a favorite song, do a meditation, get a pedicure, or take a nap. Did I say “nap” again? You get the idea. Doing even a little secret thing for yourself each day can help you keep your head.

5. Follow your dreams

There have been times when I wanted to give up! All I could say for myself is that I didn’t. I felt like shit—like dying, like running away—and boy-howdy did I let some people know about it. But after I threw my fit and bawled my eyes out, I kept going. Your dreams are yours for a reason. Don’t give up, no matter how bleak the outlook is. Sometimes you can’t do much, but do something every day/week, in the pursuit of your dream, whether it’s as big as taking tangible action, or as little as writing down, “I promise, I will not give up on this dream.” You’ll get there.

~

You can be the hero of your life this year by doing your best to keep moving forward, despite whatever it is you’re working through. Sometimes, it’s enough that you fucking survived!

Don’t compare yourself to the person who seems to have it all together. You never know how different your challenges are. Also, you may have noticed, I didn’t have a super cool pro photo of me for this. What I did have is a picture of me happily posing by a trashed old car—metaphor for the personal crap I’ve been through? You betcha.

If you agree, let me know below or add your own insights and share with a friend or two who might be inspired.

thoughts on being thankful for those who are going through hell

A few years back I stood up in front of my aunts, uncles, cousins, children, parent, grandparent, and extended family at the Thanksgiving table and volunteered to say the dinner prayer. I didn’t usually volunteer for something like that. But that year, just a few months before we’d secured an apartment. In September, just a few days before my kids would start school my brother and I had snagged a cheap two bedroom apartment to share with my children. My kids and I had just spent the summer homeless. We weren’t on the street, but we had been sleeping in my mom’s living room for over two months. It might not seem that bad if you’ve never had to do it, but if you have–YOU KNOW how demoralizing it is to lose your home.

I cannot tell you how thankful I was to have our own apartment, with our own furniture, our own space, and a fridge full of food. With tears streaming down  my face (you know I’m a crier) I shared how thankful I was that we had  home, a roof of our own over our heads, and that we could afford to make the drive up to Northern California for Thanksgiving.  I think a lot of us cried at that dinner table that night. It wasn’t the first time my kids and I had been through hell and it wouldn’t be the last, but I had never felt so thankful in all my life just to have a home.

Maybe life is peachy for you right now and if it is I’m so glad. But if you’re going through some shit, or if you just pulled yourself free of some and you’re still washing off the grime and massaging the scars, I hope these thoughts will bring you some comfort and thanksgiving:


You normally have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of daffodils, sunsets and uneventful nice days.
― Alain de Botton


A post shared by Mel Robbins (@melrobbinslive) on


You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced to by them.

― Maya Angelou


A post shared by Chrissy Metz (@chrissymetz) on


If you have only one smile in you give it to the people you love.

― Maya Angelou


If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

― Meister Eckhart


I write about the power of trying, because I want to be okay with failing. I write about generosity because I battle selfishness. I write about joy because I know sorrow. I write about faith because I almost lost mine, and I know what it is to be broken and in need of redemption. I write about gratitude because I am thankful–for all of it.

― Kristin Armstrong


A post shared by Mel Robbins (@melrobbinslive) on


Often there’s a secret courage hidden in the pocket of our deepest fears saying, “Bring it on mutherfucker.”

― Curtis Tyrone Jones


 

Big love and thankfulness to you for reading this. I hope it helped, if only a little.

~Andrea

how to give your book or creative work its best shot at succeeding

Your book, service, art, or product–should you choose to share it with the world–deserves its best shot at success. Don’t forget that.

One of the most common questions I get is, “Do I need to have a brand or online presence before I have a book?” Or if you’re not a writer, just substitute in your “products” or “services,” for “book.”

Let’s look at this chicken vs. egg conundrum via the indomitable perspective of story:

Imagine you’re about to attend a cocktail party at a colleague’s house. You don’t know anyone there, but your colleague says you’ll dig these people. You’ve been working on the final touches of your first novel all day. It’s finally finished and even the cover looks great. Then you realize it’s quarter to six and you should have left like ten minutes ago. So you throw on a t-shirt and some running shorts, swipe a brush through your hair real quick and slap on some blush.

When you arrive at the party you realize you’re woefully under-dressed. Everyone is in cocktail party attire–little black dresses and button down shirts.

Crap that’s right it’s a cocktail party, you think, well here goes nothing. You walk in and say hello to your colleague Jane, who tries to mask her shock at what you’re wearing with a meager smile.

“You do know this is a cocktail party right?” she whispers in your ear as she gives you a quick hug.

“Of course, I just didn’t have time; I was finishing my book.”

“Oh well…uh, that’s great!”

“See!” You hold it up in front of your chest like it’s a medal.

“Oh you brought it with you?!” She laughs awkwardly and congratulates you on your accomplishment. Feeling a boost–after all you just finished your entire frickin’ book–you walk over to a friendly looking gay couple and introduce yourself.

“Hello, I’m Lucy, a friend of Jane’s. And this is my newly finished book!” Again you hold it out, this time like Vanna White. “It’s sci-fi. Would you like to buy a copy? It’s really great.”

The two men shoot quick looks of shock at each other, but as polite humans they feign mild interest and say pleasantries, but really they’re thinking Who the hell is this, and who does that? I don’t even like sci-fi novels. Also, where’s the shrimp scampi?

You sense their waning interest and move on to someone else who will surely want to buy your new book.

Of course, you wouldn’t actually do this in real life. But when you go out into the world with a book but no real brand, you’re basically doing the same thing. You’re essentially going into a world where no one knows you, what you stand for, if you have any talent, or if your work will be any good, and begin barraging people with requests to read or buy your book. 

Most people are not going to succeed using this method. Or at the very least, they’re entering the room at an extreme disadvantage. I mean, would you like this? Surely you’ve even experienced the receiving end of this kind of tactic. I know I have.

Consciously branding yourself before you have something to SELL is more like spending some time to make sure you’re appropriately dressed for the party (maybe you even have a conversation starting accessory), you’re showered and clean, your hair got did, maybe even your nails too. And you leave your book at home, but you bring your well-designed business card. You have more natural conversations with the other guests, finding out what they’re interested in, how you might help each other in your careers. You might even talk about the book you’re writing when they ask you what you do, but you don’t try to sell it to them (yet). You make sure you stay connected, if they want to be. And you do something nice for them, or give them some useful information, or the phone number of that reliable, honest mechanic you know. You act like a decent human being, not a book-hawking automaton in running shorts.

I’ve said it many times, but let me reiterate: branding doesn’t mean creating some bullshit persona, it’s clarifying the strengths, gifts and vision you have for your career and life while also identifying WHO you’ll help and HOW you’ll do it (whether that’s a book, massage service, or paintings, or whatever), so you can live within the bounds of your best self and attract the people who will help you or who need you (and your work).

Taking the time to craft a brand and introduce it to the world before you have your work all dialed-in requires self-knowledge and forethought.

If you swoop in out of nowhere and have no backstory you’re not going to be a sympathetic character. It’s going to be a lot harder for people to give a shit about who you are and what you’re selling.

Of course there are always exceptions, but let’s get real, better to plan for the hardest, most-likely path and be pleasantly surprised if it works out to be easier, than the other way around, right?

These days agents and publishers are looking for two things. As my friend Monica Odom, literary agent extraordinaire said during our recent online workshop: 

“Before you pitch or query an agent, know your work and know your brand.”

Of course, you must have a really good story and execution–don’t think I’m suggesting otherwise–these are crucial to your work, unless pf course you’re already an overnight viral internet sensation. So if all you have bandwidth for is writing your book, then do that for now. But know that the time will come where you will need to set aside time to work on your brand as well. Ideally, before your book launches.

All writing being equal, the author who has a brand to support sales of their book(s) will win the bigger deal and get more support from their agent, publisher, and readers.

Over and over, through my work with various authors, agents, and editors, I’ve found that publishers are looking for not just an irresistible idea but a partner to help sell it to the world.

I know how daunting and discouraging this can seem. Even with a background in branding and marketing, I sometimes still get overwhelmed by the thought of promoting myself. Not because it’s awful, but simply because I know the creative writing side of my brain operates much differently than the marketing side. It takes work to switch gears, no doubt.

And life gets busy. Like real busy.

But I’ll tell you a secret: Once you establish the foundations of your brand and parse out a general strategy that works with who you are, it gets more exciting and less overwhelming.

Branding is kind of like writing a book–if you think about the end product too much you’ll get buried under the enormity of it all. But if you break it down to the most important concepts, the themes, the characters, the settings, and commit to a schedule–even if you can only spare a couple hours a week–you’ll begin to see the power of the results you can achieve.

Baby steps, my friends. Either that or hire help if you can.

In your brand story you are the protagonist, the hero of your career, so you must show people why they should care about the stories you’re building.

woman reading a book

Photo by Jacalyn Beales on Unsplash

If you still doubt me, here are just some of the ways a consciously-created brand can help your writing (or creative) career:

  • Actually getting the book deal because you have an edge over less prepared authors
  • Getting a bigger-better ($$$) book deal because you’ve helped the publisher see the potential in your brand and work
  • Sell more books to your already building audience
  • More promotional opportunities will popup because more people are aware of you and how awesome your work is
  • More people will genuinely want to help promote your book(s) by reviewing it, telling friends, helping you with connections
  • Better connections with colleagues who can help you with publicity, bylines and the readership you need because they understand the value you bring

Where to Start

When it comes to branding, most people instinctively start with their visuals, logo, or website, or even social media, but that’s like creating a book cover without writing the book. This is the wrong approach.

It all starts with you and the story you want for your career–your ultimate vision. Ignore the temptation to jump on the pretty stuff and do the internal work first. Remember, the story is the most important thing, so you need to know what the hell you want the story of your brand to look like before you can tell it properly.

What Creating a Brand looks like, using an adapted Hero’s Journey model:

Before you read this, remember it’s the overview so don’t get overwhelmed, each step should be broken down into bite-sized pieces. This is not possible in one blog post, this is something I do in my online branding course and one-on-one with clients.

  • Happy Ending/Vision:  Start at the end. It’s important to understand what your end game comes first when you’re planning. Decide what you really want for your life and career. Even if you are having trouble visualizing what your career would look like after your first book, focus what you want that book launch and the aftermath to look like. It’s okay to not to have all the answers, but it is essential to at least strive for an understanding of what you truly want–even if that’s not super specific at this point.
  • The Hero and her Conflict: This is where you get to know the character, what you’re good at (your strengths) and areas where you’re not so strong (things you don’t have the knowledge in or struggle with), your values, and what makes you unique. It’s important for you to understand who you are–so you can base your brand on that and not a fleeting thing like a product or book.
  • The Mentor: Learn how to create your brand consciously. You will need help. You find some info online for free (there are even some here on my site), sign up for my weekly email, or read books, etc. Or if you’re ready to get the bite-sized guidance start-to-finish, sign up for my online course.
  • The Quest: Start brainstorming ideas based on what you’ve learned about yourself, your work, and your ideal readers, for marketing strategies, design, social media, events, etc.
  • The Challenges & Temptations: There will be setbacks, or challenges, the most common of which is your own motivation to get things done. Familiarize yourself with these and always look for tools to overcome. Don’t let these biatches keep you from the career and life you want.
  • Taking Action, Building Toward the Climax & Denouement: Figure out how much time you can carve out for building your brand and slap deadlines on those tasks. Work consistent brand-building into your life and you’ll see the results begin to build over time.

To get you started on the brainstorming aspect of creating a broad overview of your own strategy using the above mentioned formula, which is essentially the first step, download my free worksheet to help you visualize this process and get started on building your brand.

Does this happen to you? You’re doing something new, pursuing a new goal or change and it feels like NOTHING is working. Here are some ways this has shown up for me:

  • I pitching or submitting writing all over, but all I hear are crickets in my inbox
  • I market myself, but my social following isn’t growing as fast as I want
  • I’m working on that book and it feels like I’ll never finish it
  • I diet and exercise but haven’t lost weight yet
  • I tell my teenagers to do their chores, but feel like I’m just talking into an echo chamber

Been there?

Meanwhile, you look on your Instagram feed and it seems that everyone else is killing it. This is when I usually get a little punchy.

I’m the type of person who, once she knows what she wants, wants it NOW. Of course, as an grownup I’ve had to learn–usually the hard way–that I have to wait. And sometimes that wait is looooong. Or seems like it, anyway.

Trying something new, whether that’s a diet, pitching a book, eating better, or even pursuing your dreams, is a risk.  And risks always bring up resistance.

If we don’t try anything new, we feel safe, comfortable. We know what to expect, even if that’s mediocrity.

When we step out of our comfort zones though, and take a risk, we don’t know what the outcome will be.

And waiting in silence can sometimes feel like failure, or torture.

Our bodies and minds often react to the sometimes slow burn of waiting in predictable ways.  But the good news is that recognizing those predictable reactions can be an effective way to begin digging yourself out of the anxiety or despair of waiting.

A few years back, I had a job I hated. Every day I had to prepare myself mentally to survive the day without slapping my boss and telling him what I really thought. Aside from not being treated like a human being, I think the thing that stung the most was that I was working so hard at something that didn’t matter to me. I knew I was capable of so much more; I knew I wanted to do something more meaningful, to help people.

On top of the shitty job, I had a second job in retail, and yet still could only afford to live at my mom’s apartment, sharing a single bedroom with my two kids. Of course I realize that others have it way worse and I don’t claim to own all the pain. But basically, my prior businesses had failed and I was in a very disempowered mental state.

It was a real banner time in my life. 

My stress levels were near capacity, so much so that I was practically incapable of figuring out what to do next to get back on my feet.

Funny enough though, on top of all that I had recently decided to  commit to pursuing my dream of becoming a writer and speaker.

I figured, heck what else did I have to lose? If I failed at what I thought I should do (being a successful business owner), I might as well fail at what I really wanted to do (be a writer and speaker, inspiring others).

So between two jobs and two kids, I’d carve out 20 minutes each day to do something, anything, even minuscule toward the glimmer of  life I wanted to lead.

Each morning I’d pull myself up out of my twin-sized bed, and with a heavy heart, push myself to reframe my mentality.

My mantra usually looked a lot like this: at least you have work, this won’t last forever, there are lessons to learn in this space.

Most of the time, I believed myself. But sometimes when the tendrils of negativity had dug too deep into my soul, I bawled, cursed, and complained, which if I’m honest, helped purge me, too. In any case, I needed reinforcements–I could not rely on myself alone to be positive.

Yet despite the love and support of those closest to me, I knew the only one who could shift this was me. So I had to reinforce my own mindset.

I listened to motivational speeches, books, and seminars on the half hour commute to the job I hated. When I arrived, I’d take a deep breath before I opened my car door. I’d gather my lunch bag, straighten my business casual button-down, and walk, head held as high as possible, past my bosses’ office windows on the way to the front door. I grasped for a happy thought so I could have a smile on my face when I walked through the door to whatever shitstorm of demoralization was in store for me that day.

I’m not very good at faking it. But I clung to those positive messages I’d listened to in the car on the way to work.

I survived that near year of struggle and moved on to better things, but every day was a push and pull of dealing with crap and doing everything I could to stay afloat mentally.

It felt like FOR-EV-ER!

 

~

Nowadays, I’m doing the work I feel put on this earth to do and there is a deep well of fulfillment that comes with that, but not always such a deep pocket book. Of course I’m still working hard to attain certain further goals, aka building my Empire of Empowerment. **insert non-evil laugh here**

But sometimes I still grow impatient when results aren’t materializing as fast as I’d like. Sometimes I even get in a panic and wonder if maybe I would be better off if I just had a “normal” life and the security that comes with that.

When I’m smart, I go back to those coping tools I learned the hard way. So, here are some tools that will hopefully help you in your journey.

When you feel like you've got nothing left and nothing is working

Weighing the Alternative

As weak sauce as it may sound, the thing that often gets me through a tough waiting period is weighing the alternative. I mean, I could be living a different life–one of predictability and stability, but never get around to writing my books, never help people with their brands, never bring hope to those who’ve had to rise above their circumstances. But I would be miserable.

So as torturous as it is to wait when you’re doing the work and NOTHING is working, it’s still better than not doing what you feel you must.

Listen to Positive People (or People Who’ve Been Through it)

Is that motivation enough, though? Aside from the shadow alternative of not trying, the other thing that gets me through is listening to, or reading, or watching inspiring people.

We can’t always have the perfect mindset, so sometimes we need to rely on someone who’s  not in the pit of despair–someone who can throw us a rope of encouragement to help us climb out of our self-imposed misery.

Did you know that for every negative thought or comment you need to counteract it with seventeen positive ones? Negativity is sticky. Positivity is more hard-won, but worth it.

Don’t Panic

The other thing tendency when you’re trying something new and aren’t getting a response or a reward is to try to figure out what you’re doing wrong so you can quickly change it.

Sometimes this is a valid approach. I mean, we all know the definition of insanity.

Sometimes it is not. More often than not, it takes more time to build this new thing than we realize.

Just because it’s taking time doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track.

We’re so used to immediate gratification these days, so if we don’t get thousands of followers, or millions in sales, or immediate recognition right now, we think we’re doing something wrong.

Often, we just need to stick with what we’re doing, make minor adjustments, and trust that the Universe will meet us halfway. Either that, or trust that miracles are possible.

One way to decipher whether you need to change your approach or just keep sticking to it is to have a group of trusted, knowledgeable peers (or a mentor), to be honest with you.

It’s not over

I think the most important thing to remember though, is that there is virtue in the work itself, even if the outcome isn’t what you’d hoped for. As cliche as it sounds there is always something to learn. Usually a lot more from the things that didn’t work than the things that did.

Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve had many ventures, ideas, tries and fails. I’ve learned a ton.

Even if you’re trapped in a soul-sucking job, eventually there will be a way out if you keep your eyes open. Even if you’re not seeing results yet from your new workout regime, you will. Even if you’re not hearing back from publications on that essay you’ve been pitching, you will; or you won’t and then maybe you’ll just publish it on your own blog. 😉

We humans always forget that nothing is permanent (well, except death, but until then…). Change is inevitable, so if you’re going through a period of struggle you have to remind yourself it will end.

It’s also important to be realistic and not expect to be the next bestselling author, or Steve Jobs overnight.

Watch this:

Your WHY

Finally, the thing I go back to when I am questioning everything, including whether or not I should press on, is my WHY. I ask myself two questions to determine if I’m feeling like shit because I’m following the wrong path, or if it’s just a bump on the right road:

  1. Why am I doing this?
  2. Do I really believe in it?

We can have all of the right tools in place, but if we aren’t sold on the reason we’re wanting to lose weight, or start a business, or build this brand, we likely will not have the follow through. So if your “why” is not good enough, either figure out a better “why” or perhaps it’s  time to change routes.

While the first question prompts you to remember your goal, the second question activates your own well-developed bullshit-o-meter.

We often ignore the wisdom we have deep down. Asking ourselves if we really believe in what we’re doing can often reveal clues to whether or not we should keep going.

Here’s a tip: when you ask yourself these questions, pay attention not only to your mental response, but to how your body feels in that moment. Often, our bodies reveal what our minds are sometimes incapable of telling us.

~

Listen, I know it’s hard to keep walking the path when you can’t see where it will end. There are only a few guarantees in life, and most of them do not ensure that you will be the victor. But one guarantee is change. So if you’re doing the work, things will change. It may not happen according to the timeline you set, but it will come eventually.

I keep going, despite the times where I’d rather curl up in the fetal position and never get out of bed. I remind myself that to think that I wouldn’t be met with challenges when trying something new is just delusional thinking.

I believe that: good things are coming to those who are striving for good.

Music

Finally, one of the best ways to quickly shift your emotional state is through music. So here’s my little gift to you, my own personal badass-good-mood-kick-ass-take-names playlist. I hope it makes you dance toward your vision of success!

 

 

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. -Chuck Close

I realize this is a funny thing to say given that my work is largely infused with inspiration/motivation, but you’ll see what I’m really getting at. As writers and/or artists, we know that 90% of the battle is just putting your damn butt in the chair to write, or picking up the paintbrush (or pencil), or whatever implement you use to create. Yet all too often we expect this flash of inspiration to hit us like a gift from the gods.

Sure sometimes that happens, but more often than not it’s a slow build.

For me, creative writing, especially nonfiction about my life, is often an arduous process. There’s the occasional moment where the clouds part and the Universe says, “here you go, honey,” as they hand me a nugget of flow.

But usually, it pretty much goes like this:

 

As a kid I was a good student. I hated disappointing anyone almost as much as I hated being anything less than perfect. For the most part I got straight A’s. I was highly disappointed in myself if I didn’t.

Classmates would often remark that I was “so smart” or how they wished they could get A’s like I did. Frankly, this kind of pissed me off. Sure, on the surface this was a compliment, but underneath was the assumption that I just had some special gift that they didn’t. Bear with me, I know I sound like a bragging asshole right now.

I spent hours studying, doing drills, and practicing to earn those grades. In fact, in fourth grade when I got my first D ever (ironically, in spelling), Dad and I worked every night for months to bring that up to an A.

I was lucky that my parents definitely passed down their genetic propensity for traditional intelligence (make no mistake there are many different types of intelligence), but after that, it was up to me to get the grades even in subjects that felt like my brain was being torn apart. I’m looking at you math and conceptual physics!

In seventh grade this girl Mary and I competed for the best grades, we were often neck-in-neck for who had the best percentage A. This was when I realized there were smarter, harder working kids than me. She wanted it more and maybe she was smarter than me, too. I backed down a bit from my quest for perfection and sometimes settled for B’s or C’s (conceptual physics, you bitch). If I couldn’t be THE best, I’d get by with my reasonable best.

The thing is, I never applied this drive to physical activity as a kid. When it came to sports of most kinds, I was riddled with self-doubt and self-pity. If I couldn’t hit the ball, run fast enough, or catch often enough I just gave up. I needed to be at the top, and if I couldn’t I bowed out. It didn’t occur to me that hard work might just get me to “decent” eventually. I understood how to apply hardwork to school, but not as much to other things.

~

Fast forward twenty-some years to when I started out at UCLA X Writers Program. I entered thinking I was a pretty good writer who just needed to learn some tools in order to write better. From my first class, I realized I was an amateur. I was not even close to the top tier. Again, I wanted to be THE best. 

I secretly dreamed of being the next Joan Didion, or Mary Karr, until I realized I would likely not only would have to work for decades, but also was not born with their level of talent either.

Something had shifted. After a brief mourning period around not being born a golden child, I was able to better fight the urge to be perfect. I cared so much about becoming a better writer. Writing was something I’d wanted to learn since high school, and now I was finally doing it. I wanted to learn as much as possible, and push myself to my best, but not THE best. 

The initial momentum of my dream to become a writer propelled me, but it was the revisiting of it that got me through the hundreds of edits and thousands of hours of writing. I still feel as if I have a long way to go, but now just being on the path is enough to keep me going.

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I liken creative work to walking. When you’re doing the work, you often feel as if you’re just staring at your feet as they step over the earth. You’re not sure where things are going, or even where you’ve been. There’s beauty in that presence, but if you don’t look up occasionally you’ll likely fall off a cliff or wander into a bad neighborhood.

On the other hand, if all you do is look up and around and your surroundings, looking for inspiration or motivation, you’ll never effectively see the path that leads you to your goals. And we all know the path is always a winding one.

I think then that our best bet is to do both. Observe what’s happening in our world, look forward toward our goals, our ultimate vision, as we call it in my personal branding course.  But we must also remember to look down at our feet, be in the moment, so we don’t stumble over that rock, or we can step over that brook, or clear out those branches that have fallen to block our path.

The rewards are all around us and even within the work of our path. But it’s that combination of steps, moving forward–the daily work–that leads us closer to our dreams, while that looking up that reminds us why we’re here.  

The more we do the work, the more inspiration follows. We don’t have to be the best, but when we are relentless in the pursuit of our calling, dream, or purpose, our most inspired work bursts forth.