This is the recording of a session I did yesterday with IESE Business School on the topic of writing as a tool to help your career. In this context, writing is not so much about writing for magazines or in a blog… but writing to set goals, to stay focussed, to identify what is important, to gain clarity, to track progress, to plan…
Do you need Motivation? …or do you need Clarity?
Many people say they lack motivation, when what they really lack is clarity. They are not de-motivated, they just don’t have any clear sense of where and how to place their energy and their time.
If you don’t have a plan, you can’t procrastinate. If you didn’t have a plan, procrastination is your plan.
If your goals aren’t written down, it is hard to refocus on them when you get distracted.
PS My friend Christophe took this so seriously that he tattooed an intention on his arm. Tattoos are a big step… maybe start with a piece of paper.
I say it over and over again. I repeat myself. My blog is an extension of my habit of writing down ideas.
A short pencil is longer than the longest memory.
“Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible. Yet it is a skill most of us take for granted.” Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing.
Email has almost completely replaced the written letter. This creates an opportunity. Written letters are so rare that they really stand out. You can really benefit from this special attention, but maybe nobody ever taught you the art of good letter writing. Here is a short guide…
The blog “The Art of Manliness” has some comic takes on the art of being a “man”. I find it funny. They had a recent series that was really helpful: templates for letters that we each should know how to write. Their template for a letter of condolence was a real help for me recently as I couldn’t think of how to start writing a letter to a friend who had faced a tragic loss.
A Letter of Encouragement – No guide, some tips given below…
How many of these letters have you’ve already written? Which types of letters are your favourite to write and to receive?
How (and Why) to Write A Letter of Encouragement
I often forget the power of a few of my words of encouragement for the people around me. I make it a habit to write thank you letters, but have decided to add encouragement letters to this habit.
I know many people who have faced hard economic times over the last 5 years as Europe faces the continuing fallout after the financial crash of 2008.
A letter of encouragement tells someone in the midst of a hard time that you’ve got their back and have faith in their ability to continue on or find a way out.
A letter can be more powerful than a phone call or a face to face talk. Letters are so rare as to be special these days. The power of the letter is in its permanence. It can continue to give motivation days, months and years later because the words are always available. The letter form often allows me to express clearly emotions that I might avoid in a face to face meeting.
The format for encouragement is the praise format that Ken Blanchard first shared with me. Create a distinct separation between the quality of the person and the state of the project. First, acknowledge that not all is going to plan and it must feel heartbreaking. Second, let the person know the important qualities you recognise in them. That’s all. Sign your name and put it in the post.
I think this letter can be short. In my past, it was the thought that mattered. The fact that someone cared enough to reach out.
I have had times where I have struggled with setbacks and doubt, times when I was tempted to abandon the path. I have been lucky in that friends, mentors and family members have stepped in with words, emails or letters of encouragement at important moments. (Thanks friends… you know who you are!).
Who will you encourage today?
Maybe a friend has lost their job and is starting to lose hope of ever finding another good position. Maybe an entrepreneur has recently been rejected from an accelerator program and is not sure whether they are good enough. Maybe a friend is going through a tough time in their relationship, or is facing a family health challenge that is starting to tire them out.
Who do you know who is facing a real challenge and could really benefit from a couple of words of encouragement from you?
The real depth of any story is not whether the character achieves the goal but who they become as they face the obstacles along the path.
How to Develop a Story
From a writer’s perspective, a story has to first develop a character that we care about, and we wonder what will happen to them. Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Hundred Steps says that the character must “save the cat”. The character must do something charitable that shows there is a decent human inside. Rocky always does 3-4 charitable things in the first 20 minutes of each film that follows the boxer.
Step 1: “Save the Cat” – our main character does something that gets us to love him
Once we care, then something has to happen to force the character to show their hand. In real life, we don’t change unless we are changed by events. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard “the only precursor to change is crisis”.
So story step number 2: a crisis. Something that forces the character to commit to the goal. In Star Wars, Luke returns from the desert trip to find his aunt and uncle have been murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers. He commits to travel with Obi-wan to space.
Step 2: The Inciting Event – something external kicks our loveable character off of the sofa
We are now on the journey.
Joseph Campbell speaks of this moment as the Portal to Adventure. Often the character will have approached this portal a few times in the past, only to turn back at the last moment. Something happens to push them over the edge. It might be a mentor that says “things will be ok for you”. It might be a love interest who says “do it for me!” It might be a coincidence that the hero reads as divine message saying “it is you”.
The adventure begins. Often a few easy victories give the hero (and the readers) a sense that this is going to work out well.
In an interesting story, there are positive turns and negative turns. In Homer’s Odysseus, the hero makes amazing progress towards his home using the magic of the wind that the Gods gave to him in a bag. Joy. Progress. Then, the crew open the bag to see if they can get home even quicker. Opening the bag is a negative turn. The uncontrolled wind escapes from the bag and blows the ship way, way, way back far, far, far away from home, even further than from where they had begun.
The positive turns allow us to keep the reader engaged and hopeful of the final outcome.
The negative turns allow us to develop the character of the hero. Kurt Vonnegut says “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Step 3: Positive Turns, Negative Turns
The trials and tribulations, hopes and dashed dreams continue for a while. We are watching the hero gather resources, make friends, identify enemies, trust those that are not worthy of trust, disobey those that should really have been obeyed – make a mess out of easy situations, and just pull it together to make it through the difficult challenges.
Then, the novelty wears off and the hero realises that they don’t feel like they are making progress. I am reminded of the feeling when I sail between the coast and an island. When I set out from the shore of Australia to sail to the Whitsunday islands, at first the coast behind me got rapidly smaller – I felt like I was flying out to sea. Then comes the interminable middle. The coast is no longer shrinking, but the islands don’t seem to be getting any bigger. All I know is that wave after wave is hitting my boat. I stay in this state for hours. Then, all of a sudden, the islands rapidly grow larger and larger.
In the interminable middle, the hero must find a way to overcome self doubt as well as the many obstacles that block the path to the goal.
We then reach a point of disillusion. This is the point of abandon. The hero is tired, has lost sight of the original goal, feels like they are making no progress.
The hero wants to give up. It feels pointless to go on.
Again, in good story, we need an external cause that pushes the hero to one last push. It might be a friend that reappears and supports. It might be an evil enemy doing something that is double the despicable of anything he has done before. It might be the loss of the hero’s closest ally. It might be the death of the hero’s mentor (remember Obi-Wan sacrificing himself to Darth?).
The hero, this time without hope for themselves, having lost their own ego reason for taking up the original mission takes one last push – and this push is enough to break the deadlock of the interminable middle and open up the return home.
Step 4: Disillusionment and the Point of Abandon, The Final Push
The hero has achieved the original goal. Prometheus achieves stealing fire from the Gods and returns to the world. Luke and his allies blow up the Death Star with a last, final, spiritually enhanced missile (“just like shooting swamp rats back home!”).
The hero returns to his village, to those that knew him before his journey.
Sometimes the return is the most challenging. The hero has become a very different person though the obstacles they have overcome, but their mother and father, their brothers and sisters still see the old version of the person. It takes tremendous effort to get the old friends and family to see the new person and let go of the old person.
In a movie, we leave the cinema with a sense of closure, that a full cycle has finished. In a book we finish with a sense that the universe has been restored to a new point of equilibrium. In real life, we realise that this epic story is just a tiny sub-plot in a bigger and bigger story. In real life, the meaning is not designed into the events by an author, it is we ourselves who must create the meaning that can fit the events of our lives and give us the feeling that it is worth waking up again and experiencing more tomorrow.
Step 5: The Return
This then, is a story:
Hero + Goal + Obstacles + Resources + Friends + Enemies + Learning and Growing to become the person that can succeed
“It’s extremely difficult to do something big. I think setting out to do something small is easier and more likely to work.” Seth Godin
If you are reading this, I will assume that you writing a book or are thinking about writing a book. What is holding you back? What obstacle sits between you and a flow-like state where all is clear and the words come?
I believe the biggest obstacle is not outside of you. I believe the biggest obstacle is inside of you.
Your anchor is dragging. More power to the motor won’t help. You must raise your anchor: The Resistance.
Stephen Pressfield says that our purpose lies behind what we most fear. The book we are most scared to write is the book we should be writing. If there is no fear related with the writing, it is probably not important.
Our ego is so determined to undermine us, that it will justify all forms of procrastination. The excuses will be rational. They will be true. They will be well argued. If we engage on their level, they will always win. Seth Godin calls this The Resistance. The closer we get to achieving our purpose, the louder the Resistance will rebel.
The Wisdom of Horses
Ranulph Fiennes is the oldest British man to have climbed Everest. He climbed it at his 3rd attempt when he was 65 years old. What changed on his 3rd attempt?
Ranulph’s wife is a horse trainer. When he was setting out on this last attempt, she said “do it like horses”.
Ranulph asked “what do you mean, do it like horses?”
His wife explained to him that a horse runs with no thought for the finish line. A horse runs until it drops from exhaustion. She told him to only ask himself “can I take one more step?” and if the answer is “yes”, take that one more step and repeat. Don’t allow your mind to consider more than the next step.
Great endurance athletes have learnt this. They have learnt to cheat their mind by refusing to allow it to think about the sheer scale of what they are taking on. They look at the summit of Everest and don’t really see it again until they are standing on it.
Prolific writers don’t think about the 60,000 words they need to write for the book, they think in pages or paragraphs or just word by word. John Grisham wrote one page per day before starting work at his day job. One page a day.
If a Gap Opens, The Resistance will win
The moment a gap of thinking is opened, the Resistance will step in and will win. If I stop to edit, I will kill this writing session. If an ultramarathon runner thinks “how much more have I got left?” his Resistance will win. The moment that the pause comes in, is when the Resistance has a chance of winning.
The Resistance will win in any argument. It has no morals nor any type of excuse that it will not use. It can only be conquered for moments when you commit completely to the flow, to the production of words, to the practice of piano, to make the sales call, to finish the drawing.
Performance = Potential – Self Sabotage
I spent some time last year interviewing successful endurance athletes like Kilian Jornet. I wrote about the Mental Models of High Performance. How do they manage to do the “impossible”?
The answer was quite simple: They don’t think. When they are running, biking or swimming they don’t let their mind wander off into the future. They stay present in this moment. At most the next stroke, or at the very most the next pause for a drink.
How to write a book?
Write like a horse. Can you do one more word? Write one more word. Keep going.
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