15 September 2014

Success: Mindset and Attitude

Last week I went to an evening presentation by Nigel Latta. He's well-known here, but probably not outside of New Zealand. Nigel is a forsenic psychologist and has hosted several television shows: Beyond the Darklands, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers and The Politically Incorrect Parenting Show, as well as writing books on these subjects.

I had no idea of the format for the evening, and considering the theme of a couple of my recent posts (here and here), I was quite amused when he said he was going to talk about the Psychology of Success, or 'How you get where you want to go'.

He's an articulate and amusing presenter, and kept his message clear and straightforward. 
  • Plan: Know where you want to go or what you want to do. This world of ours is full of information and distractions that can quickly lead us away from what we really want to do.
  • Work: He subscribes to the view that we can over-rate talent, and sometimes use it as a cop-out for not trying, i.e. I'm no good at maths, and I'm never going to be any good. If we want to gain new skills or improve at something, then we need to practice, and have the mindset that we can improve. He mentioned some of the research that I've read, that talent isn't fixed and our mindset and attitude is vital in determining our success or otherwise.
  • Think: Because we're so busy just trying to keep up with life, we probably don't spend enough time thinking about what is really important to us. This probably links back to planning. If we need to spend time really practising those skills we want to improve, we don't have the time to be excellent at everything, therefore we need to select those things that are most important to us.
Here are some links if you're interested in reading more on mindset and attitude:
Talent isn't fixed
The Right Mindset for Success - Harvard Business Review blog 
The Effort Effect - Stanford Magazine

Success means different things to each of us. Nigel summed up the meaning of success for him - in the widest sense - as living a meaningful life, and in everyday interactions trying to make life a little better/nicer/happier for anyone he comes in contact with.

This idea isn't new, but it's good to be reminded that success shouldn't always be thought of in fame or financial terms.

As a side note to this, the event was held in one of the local schools. Parking was in various parts of the school grounds and the surrounding roads. I'd been directed to the tennis courts for parking. Several hundred people attended the event, and exiting the school grounds afterwards was obviously very slow. I sat patiently in my parking space for about ten minutes waiting to join the exit queue. The school hall had been cold, and to be honest, I was just happy to thaw out with the heater going full blast! From my parking space, I was looking at a driver in the queue. He was behind a driver who was very kindly letting everyone else out. The driver I could see looked as though he wanted to lean on his horn, but he must have remembered Nigel's comments, and refrained!

02 September 2014

Busy is the New Rich

With the start of a new month, I've heard a few people making the comment, 'Where has the year gone?' With our third house move this year looming, I know where our eight months has gone!

It's been a busy year as we've sold, rented, bought and renovated. Added to which there is family, work, writing and that little thing called 'having a life'. The list is in no particular order, although 'having a life' got tagged on the end almost as an after-thought, as it's been for a while!

I hear you either tutting, or taking a big breath to tell me how much busier you've been. But wait a minute....

That second paragraph, while entirely true, was written a little tongue-in-cheek. I listen to people at work, friends, acquaintances and passers-by talking, and everyone is BUSY. Not just busy, but BUSY!!

We seem proud of the amount of hours we have to work and our lack of spare time. It's almost a badge of honour. A way of showing how important we are. No longer are we talking about the new car/sound system/television we have, but rather our lack of time to use these items. Even children aren't immune. They seem to spend their lives being ferried around to after-school classes/clubs/social events with weekends full of teams and sports.

I'm not sure if it's worse than it used to be, or if being on-call 24/7 with email, smartphones and gadgets makes it feel that way. If I could bottle something that solved our time deprived lives, and sell it, I know I'd make a fortune. 

There isn't really a one-size fits all solution. We have to find the answer ourselves. I think it begins with realising the effects this state of busyness has on us, keeping us in a state of near panic. If we're constantly running on adrenalin, we're not doing our physical and mental-selves any favours, and our decision-making capabilities are degraded.

Unfortunately, most of us aren't in a position to change everything in our lives. At the very least, I think we should stop for a few minutes at least once a day, and clear our minds of all those chattering thoughts that want to grab our attention. We should use the time to notice where we are and the things around us, and how we actually feel physically. In other words, to be exactly in that moment, rather than still continuing an argument we had earlier with someone, or still being angry with the driver who cut into the queue, or the other thousands of mostly inconsequential things that drag us away from enjoying NOW.

W.H. Davies wrote this poem in the early 1900s.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


Someone once said they doubted anyone would ask for the words, 'Wish I'd spent more time at the office,' on their tombstone.
 
It's a beautiful world out there. Appreciate it.

28 August 2014

Handwriting Matters

Most people I know, and I include myself in this, mutter about the state of their handwriting when giving someone a handwritten note, or a manuscript with scribbles all down the side of the page.

I've been known to rewrite short notes or a set of directions, especially if they're for someone else.

I'm sure at some time in the distant past I had reasonable handwriting. It was never wonderful, but at least it was legible. I recall 3-hour exam essays that looked better than my handwriting now. Of course, also like everyone else, I blame the computer for this!

Having said that, I wouldn't swap the wonderful convenience of Cut and Paste, or performing a quick Find and Replace and changing a character's name (and back again sometimes!) without even blinking.

However, I do often use pen (or pencil) and paper to write a scene, plan future chapters, or get the sense of how a character speaks by writing out scenes full of dialogue. There's something about physically writing that frees up the imagination.

On that note, here is an article from the New York Times I found interesting. It also reminded me the first thing I used to do when starting to study for exams was to write out my main revision headings and the important points within each, and use that as my revision. But then I was a bit of a girly swot!

21 August 2014

Getting Better All The Time


Becoming good at something interests me – you probably got that impression from the previous post.

Why does one person achieve success and another doesn’t? Why is one person excellent at a sport or occupation, while others are mediocre? What makes the difference?

I guess it begins with our individual motivation and desire to succeed at something. Like most people, I’ve watched athletes or musicians etc. and have been amazed at their skills, and wished I could do the same. The big difference is that my idle wish has never morphed into anything more than a frivolous fancy, at least not until I decided I wanted to be able to call myself a writer, and be proud of what I'd written.

It’s easy to look at a sportsperson, singer, musician or artist and think how lucky they are to have that talent; to be born good at what they do. But they weren’t.

‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.’ Michelangelo 

A number of years ago, I joined a badminton club. I’d always enjoyed playing and I wanted to improve. I played regularly (two or three times a week), with the purpose of improving. I played with, and against, better players and took part in the club competitions. I never became the best, but my game improved. That was my goal. We moved to a different part of the country and I wasn’t able to continue in the same way, but after a while we found some friends to play with once a week. We played mainly for fun. It was exercise and we enjoyed the evening out. I had a good time, but my game didn’t improve.

Thinking of that reminded me of years ago when I learned to type. The course involved some speed tests at the end, and so once I’d mastered the basics, I practiced hard to improve my speed. I can’t remember now what it was, maybe 90 words per minute, or even a hundred. These days  I use the computer every day, My typing speed is fast, but no faster than it was then, and possibly slightly slower.

My mother always used to tell me that ‘practice makes perfect.’ There is some truth in that, however, I don’t believe that all practice is created equal. Yes, I type every day, but my goal is writing a book, or an article or blog post, not improving my speed. When I only played badminton recreationally and not to improve, my game remained the same.

If we want to become excellent at something, or at least improve, we need to practice, but we need to practice with a purpose. That’s why goals are so useful necessary. They give us something to work towards, and results we can measure.

If we want to play a game professionally, an occasional fun practice with friends isn’t going to help us. We need more practice, lots more, and we need to practice with a purpose.

How much practice do we need to become excellent at something?

I’ve read a number of books on this subject and the consensus appears to be around 10,000 hours. That’s 10,000 hours of writing practice, or some other skill, with a purpose.

10,000 hours sounds like a lot (and it is), but let's convert it into more meaningful figures. If we use 40 hours a week as working at something fulltime, that is 250 weeks of writing, which is a little under 5 yrs.

That’s a lot of writing. And if you have a job and writing is part-time (say 20 hours a week) then it’s ten years of purposeful practice. Speechless yet?

On the plus side, improvement is an incremental process, so it’s not as if we’re beginners until we get to the 10,000 word mark, and then suddenly become amazing. We’re improving all the time.

Being excellent at something takes time, and effort.

It’s not just practice, but practice with a purpose. It should challenge us.  We should make ourselves work on the things we can’t do well, rather than paddling in the shallows of things we think we can do well.

Let's assume we're putting in our practice with a purpose! Is that all, when we've completed our 10,000 hours, will we be excellent? Is practice all we need?

All top athletes, musicians, artists need the right training. For writers, courses and books are a good start. However, once we’ve learned the basics we need more – we know about pace, point of view, tense etc. Now we need to know where we’re not applying these things in our own writing.

Athletes have coaches. I’ve never been a top athlete, but I’d guess the coach’s purpose (or one of them at least), is to give feedback. If the move or shot didn’t work, why not?  

What is the equivalent for writers? There is a point when we know the craft skills of writing, but we’re still a long way from excellence. Just as an athlete needs a coach to help them make changes or tweaks to technique or stance or training, so we need specific help. We need someone who also knows all the craft skills, and can tell us where we’re not putting them into practice in our writing. A writing group is excellent for this, they provide support, motivation and specific feedback. In addition to a writing group, once we’ve finished our novel then beta readers are invaluable. Writing groups and beta readers need to be chosen carefully. They provide different feedback and have different skill sets. Don’t forget professionals such as editors.  Mentors are popular in business groups and some organisations provide writing mentors, or subsidise programmes to link writers with mentors for a period of time. In this environment we can get feedback and support that is specific to us.

Building this knowledge can transform us and help us meet our own personal goals for success.

08 August 2014

What is Success?

Recently I’ve been considering how my writing goals have changed over the years. Like many people, I started writing the great novel. I got to about the 20,000 word mark, and realised my idea didn’t have the legs to be a novel. Around that time, I took a couple of writing courses and read a number of writing books. Through the courses, I met a small group of other writers who also wanted to be part of a critique group, and so I had the feedback I needed.  I left the 20,000 words of my novel behind, and started writing short stories. I really recommend this as a great start. It allows you to work through all those autobiographical stories and ideas in the short form without trying to force them into a novel, and you come out of the other side with new inspiration and characters to use, as well as improved writing and editing skills.

Short stories don’t take as long as a novel. You get to practice both the first draft and editing stages far more frequently.

After writing, editing, feedback and more editing, I began to feel I was improving, and so the writing itself wasn’t a big enough goal.

That was when I really started setting writing goals. Firstly, to send stories off to competitions. There were plenty of black holes when I never heard anything, or occasionally received a list of winners (my name being absent!). Mixed with that were a few modest successes. They were the highs, and on the back of those I changed my goals and sent stories to magazines. Later, there was the goal to write a novel – mostly to prove to myself that I could.

I gave this post the title What is Success? There is no definitive answer. Success is different to each of us, and it changes over time. 

What is your definition of success? 

BUT, the big question is - how will you know when you’ve reached it?

To know when we’ve reached our goal, we have to be able to measure it.

To say, I want to entertain people, isn’t specific or measurable. What do you mean? Do you want to read out loud to an audience? How will you know if your readers have been entertained? 

I recall reading a post from a writer outlining her goals, some of them were specific sales totals per month. At that time I was speechless (doesn’t happen often!) at her targets. I’m still a significant way from her numbers, but closer than I was last year.

Your goals will be personal to you. They might include a certain word count every week, sales targets, winning a competition prize, or a specific number of good reviews from people you don’t know. We have control over some of these goals, but others are out of our personal control.

Whatever way you envisage success, I think it’s important to know what you’re aiming for, and how close you are to reaching it.

24 June 2014

Follow Your Passions

During a writing class I attended years ago, the tutor asked us why we wrote. There were various answers, most taking the high road of feeling the need to write, having something to say or wanting to entertain with our writing. The tutor smiled and said it was perfectly acceptable to admit we wanted to make money.

At that time I was in the naïve stage of the writing business, and still wondering whether an 'ordinary' person like me could ever aspire to calling themselves a writer.


Fast forward to now. There have been huge changes in the publishing business, and I think for writers they are good changes, giving us more of a say in what we do and how we choose to accomplish it. However, while there may be more people making money from their writing, I doubt many have been able to give up the day job.

If you are a writer, why do you write? 


There is nothing wrong in wanting to make money from writing, but I do believe if money is your goal, you’re in the wrong business. It’s easier to make money in almost any other way. The payment per hour of hard slog is negligible, and the lottery probably offers better odds.

I’ve never been under any illusions about becoming rich through writing. If I'm ever able to make enough money to pay the bills, I will be thrilled, but money is a secondary goal. Much higher up the list are improving my skills, becoming a better writer and entertaining people.

Maya Angelou said, ‘You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.’

If you don't love writing (or anything), purely for the thing itself, if you don't have a passion for it, you won't be able to put in the work that makes you excel.

This is easily seen with children. As they grow you can see characteristics and their likes and passions develop. The correlation between things they love doing and the growth of skills is obvious. Somehow that connection becomes fuzzy as we get older, and are bogged down with stuff we ‘have to do’.


Pursue your passions, and it shouldn’t seem like work!

15 June 2014

Perfection

Occasionally in a text or email from my daughter, she’ll add a #Perfectionist. It’s an in-joke between us, as I sometimes moan about by perfectionist tendencies.

I’m obviously well aware of this trait, and sometimes flaw, in my personality. I’m not a perfectionist with everything, far from it. I can live with dusty surfaces and general untidiness (to a point!). When we’re decorating, I’m definitely a ‘close enough is good enough’ worker, who manages to get plenty of paint on surrounding surfaces and myself. However, when it comes to my creative writing, it’s never good enough!

Perfection is a double-edged sword. If something is important to me, I absolutely believe in making it as good as I can, but some things just aren’t worth worrying about that much. For me, house-decorating, cleaning and a whole pile of other things definitely fall into that category. Perfection is also an impossible standard. Whether it’s trying to look as good as a model or actress, or be as fit as a professional athlete, we’ll probably never measure up, certainly not in our own eyes.

However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work at being the best we can, at things that are important to us. The hard part is knowing when we’ve done all we can, at this moment. Those last three words are important. I look at some of my early short stories and writing – the things that no one else has ever seen - and cringe when I read them. The flip side is that I’m improving.


This thing with perfection can defeat us if we take our search too far. I know I reach a point where I have to tell myself that something is as good as I can make it. Now. It’s been critiqued, edited and polished to the best of my abilities, and within that search for perfection, there is a certain pride that I’ve done my best. We have to know when we’ve reached the limit of what we can do now, and send it out into the world.

If we don’t, then we’ll never learn to be pleased with where we are now, and look at how to move beyond it.


Equally, we know when we could make something better, but we can't be bothered because we're fed up with it. It's a different feeling, and if we leave something there and don't improve it, we're selling ourselves short.


Some time ago I read the book 11/22/63 by Stephen King. In speaking about the book, he said he first had the idea as a very young writer, but knew he didn’t have the skills to pull it off at that point, so he practiced his craft and honed his skills until he felt he could write the book and do it justice.

Somewhere there is a point we have to find, where we can let go and be proud of what we've achieved, knowing there is still more of the hill to climb.