The Conditions are Always Impossible

Doris Lessing died earlier this week. I can’t offer a proper obituary. I have never read her work. The Golden Notebook is on my list of things to read. And still, I am grateful to her for the gift of this quote, which has been following me around all week:

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

Her words are finding me at every turn. I find them in my tweets, my blogs and now, endlessly, in my own head. It is that song playing softly in the background, which I cannot get out of my head. It is that familiar, unnamed face I see in the hallways and on the elevators as I go about my day. It is the message inside a hundred thousand fortune cookies. It is, I think, the voice of the universe telling me something subtle and simple and true.

There is something you are meant to do. Do that thing right now. Keep doing that thing until you’ve got it figured out. It won’t get easier. Your life is never going to be simpler or more ideal. You will never feel more inspired. You have everything you need to get started. Anything else you will find along the way.


Most of us carry the idea that great writers operate like mad geniuses, frequently swept up by sudden inspirations, brilliant insights and compulsions they neither control nor understand. Even though I know this is not true, I often behave as if it ought to be.

The truth is more mundane. Great writers put in lots of time. The act of writing stuff down is a major activity that gets as much time as they can give. It isn’t haphazard. There isn’t a muse standing somewhere just out of sight, waiting to kidnap the great writer when least expected.

Great writers build routines, deep habits of time and effort that can endure the storms, setbacks and sudden distractions of daily life.

I haven’t written in over a month. I’m not beating myself up about it. That doesn’t work. The past five weeks have been a maelstrom. Most parts of everyday have been outside my control.

Here’s the thing: most parts of everyday are always outside my control. They have always been that way.  They will always be that way. Developing a routine shapes a space where not writing is more unusual than writing. Developing a routine creates a kind of gravity where not writing takes more effort than writing.

Life always surprises. We are not in control of the things that happen. Routine is a way of building a furrow in the ground to hide inside. Routine is a safe place to protect the things that matter the most. Routine is investment in a belief about yourself, a habit of being who you are. No matter what happens to carry you off course.

And when things get really crazy, we are able to be gentle with ourselves and be grateful for the anchor of routine. This isn’t a rigid, inflexible thing. It is a shape we create inside our lives. A place to put the things that matter the most.

Words. Stacks of them pile up over hours and hours which become days and days. Then weeks and months. Eventually years. This is a decision about how to spend a life. It isn’t a thing a person decides to do once in a while when the mood feels right, the angle of the light is just so or the inspiration has heated our juices. This is decision that gets made about the same time every single day. Write or don’t write. Either way, you are cultivating a habit. You are living your routine.

Familiar Faces, Unmet Friends

Twenty years ago, I had a dream that has stayed remained with me. I don’t often remember my dreams. When I do, they feel important so I pay attention.

In this dream, I am wandering the halls in a big, empty house with no furniture. I come to an open door and enter a large room. The room is crowded with people and creatures. Many are mundane. Some are fantastic. I have never met these people, these creatures, but they recognize me, and they are glad I am there. They smile and make me feel welcome.

I woke from that dream feeling like this was a roomful of not yet imagined characters, relieved to be finally discovered. They were glad and patient. No one spoke. They just smiled and nodded, as if they had all the time in the world.

I was thinking about this dream after writing this morning. I was working on a piece of improvised fiction from a prompt. The writing itself didn’t go especially well but I was struck by how much fun it is to write sometimes and find entire people living inside you with their own thoughts, feelings and ideas about things that seem quite separate from you. It is a powerful feeling to discover these other lives inside of you, unseen and unobtrusive, waiting for their turn to be discovered through words. Just like that roomful of unmet friends from twenty years ago.

This is a very powerful feeling that arrived like a gift. This is a happy reminder of why I ever bother writing at all.

TED Talks as One Night Stand

Last week, I wrote a bit about the limits and virtues of TED Talks as a vehicle for ideas that can transform how we work and live. I love TED Talks and usually find them wildly inspiring. The trick is what to do with that feeling. Where can we carry that sense of inspiration? How do we apply it?

Jim Rettew offers great insights on the nature of TED and what we should be doing with it. You should read “Are TED Talks a One Night Stand With Ideas?”

Rettew offers two essential insights for me. The Biggest Ideas are usually statements of problem rather than statements of solution. He offers Picasso’s Guernica as an example.  To be fair, Guernica is a different sort of thing than a talk, but the example gets Rettew to this statement:

Great Ideas, then, don’t merely easily please us with their immediate utility — often, they break our hearts with desperate futility; with both the aching impossibility and sure inevitability of the trials and tests of human life. But that’s precisely what makes them Great.

Which leads to Rettew’s other essential point about the TED Talks way of sharing: “It gives us the climax of epiphany, without the challenge and tension of thought.”

The habit of thinking represented by TED Talks delivers the quick thrill of insight without the underlying work of thought, reflection and bewilderment.

Rettew sees trouble not specifically with TED Talks, but rather the Ideas Industry. TED Talks are just a useful exemplar.

TED Talks are powerful, useful and generally helpful. The trouble is with the easy trust that TED Talks can create. The TED Talks website is an epiphany machine. Since viewers receive these epiphanies without the preliminary discomforts of confusion, critical thought and experience, the machine delivers the appearance of solutions as a form of entertainment. We can feel better about things because smart people have come up with great ideas. Action is not required. We aren’t asked to actually do anything.

Great Ideas, Rettew tells us, require something from us. Great Ideas require action. We are more than pundits and consumers.

As bloggers, we are part of the Ideas Industry. When I post, what is it I am doing? Am I contributing something useful that can be used to make something useful happen? Am I just a conduit for the comfort of other people’s epiphanies?

Maybe the idea of epiphany is what I am actually working with in this series of posts. The assumed belief that useful insights and solutions always arrive as epiphanies, and that progress always happens in unexpected, brilliant leaps forward.

We need those leaps sometimes, to be sure.

More often, progress comes from slow, steady application of reason, hypothesis and process of elimination.

The Idea Industry tells us that epiphanies are required to make things better. The problem is that epiphanies are not something we can count on everyone to provide. If we are going to improve things that matter, we need to get everybody into the game. We need to encourage both kinds of thinking.

The Tyranny of Big Ideas

I am a person who loves big ideas. You may have noticed.

I can’t really help it. I get inspired by other people’s bold thoughts, sweeping visions and prophetic pronouncements. I walk around with this sense that we are living in radical times and believe that the scale of change around us requires a comparable measure of audacity, brilliance and courage.

I am not alone. The world is filled with people who are ever-watchful for the next brilliant solution to a once seemingly intractable problem. You find these people, people like me, more often than not, watching TED Talk videos.

John Spencer sees a problem with TED Talks. TED Talks are conceived as being a way to jump start meaningful conversation about worthwhile ideas. The point of the conversation is, of course, to vet the ideas and improve them through critique. Spencer doubts the quality of the conversation that follows.

Spencer describes TED Talks as a kind of “Secular Scripture”, a text that  cannot be refuted. For Spencer, TED Talks are sometimes brandished as a kind of idea bomb that gets tossed his way whenever he offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing wisdom. This has not happened to me, but I see the danger of the experience he describes.

Big ideas can be habit-forming. Big ideas can be addictive. There is an element of wishful thinking that sometimes hounds the believer of big ideas, a willingness to trade away the obligation to be skeptical and mistrustful of ideas that have not yet proven themselves or arrive unaccompanied by detail and practice.

This is where most big ideas suffer. Big ideas are often celebrated and lauded before they get connected to details and practical application. Worse, big ideas get praised as half-solutions before the nature of the problem is fully explored. And then, the person who is casting doubt is a naysayer. But the work of skeptic is necessary. Otherwise, we lurch from big idea to big idea, each time willing ourselves to believe that problems have been solved, really and permanently solved, simply because we would like for them to be solved.

Sometimes big ideas are used as a tool for political manipulation. (Recommended listening: DecodeDC’s “There’s a Plan for That”)

It can very difficult to argue with big ideas. This is partly because bold ideas are generally conceptual in nature and painted with broad strokes. It is hard to deconstruct broad strokes without nitpicking. Nobody likes a nitpicker.

Sometimes, big ideas arrive with such force that there is no space left for critique or examination. In Spencer’s view, if TED Talks are a conversation, the original presenter gets to speak with a megaphone and everyone else answers in scattered whispers. The TED Talk viewer is given easy access to new, challenging ideas but does not often see those ideas presented in context with opposing, contrarian views. In this way, TED Talks can sometimes become a kind of sales pitch — quick, to-the-point, ready to sell and, ultimately, unanswerable.

Spencer’s critique is fair. Like Spencer, I think TED is an excellent site rich with powerful, challenging ideas that deserve to be shared and discussed widely. We just need to be sure that we aren’t giving these ideas a pass just because they are big, bold and lovely. Ideas get improved by being pulled apart, debated, and, sometimes, refuted. Not all ideas deserve to be implemented. Not all big ideas need to be tried.

More to the point for me, there is a warning here to beware the lure of the big idea as a magic tonic that cures all ills. People like me are called idealists. People like me have a lot to offer the world, but we have to be careful. We should never expect big ideas to save the world. Ideas never saved anyone or made things better. Hard work makes things better. Easy to forget sometimes that the way to change the world is to work hard. The process is iterative. The process is incremental. The process can be frustratingly slow. Without the work, however, the idea is just a false comfort, a fun diversion that keeps us from the discomfort of disagreement and uncertainty. Nothing useful ever happened without discomfort and uncertainty. We work through that.

We need big ideas. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t need to be so complex. Sometimes we need smaller idea, so long as it is the right small idea and it is coupled with lots and lots of work.

Creative Advice from Ira Glass

I have been writing off and on for 24 years. I’m not really sure why I do it. Sometimes I write because I feel like I have to. Sometimes I write because I feel like there are stories stuck inside of me. Sometimes I write because I have ideas in my head that I don’t really understand and I want to understand them better.

I take writing pretty seriously. I stress out about writing. I talk about writing. I read about writing. I pretty much obsess about writing. The one thing I don’t do enough, it turns out, is actually writing.

The writers I admire most say that the secret to being a great writer is writing everyday. Just writing and writing and writing. It makes sense, but it isn’t particularly encouraging advice when the writing feels so thin and poor on the page.

Ira Glass says that’s normal. In fact, mediocrity is part of the process. All good artists start out being mediocre and they are dissatisfied by their own mediocrity. This dissatisfaction dissuades most people from sticking with it. Don’t give up. The cure for mediocre art is to create lots and lots of mediocre art. The fact that you recognize your own art’s mediocrity is a sign of good taste. Keep working at it. Work at it for years. Slowly, you will close the gap. Someday, your art will be as good as your taste, but only if you stay with it and only if you do it a lot.

Here’s how Ira Glass says it:

Keep doing it.

Having Power vs. Giving Power: Leadership Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are many reasons why Dr. King still matters 45 years after his death.

He gave hope to millions of people who had lost hope.

He gave voice to people who had never had the chance to find and use their own voice.

At a time when many believed that social change required violent revolution,
Dr. King recognized that non-violent social change penetrates deeper and lasts longer than violent change.

He helped people separate hatred of others from hatred of their behaviors.

He reached past habits of prejudice and suspicion to see that white was not the enemy of black and black was not the enemy of white.

His was a voice of eloquence and inspiration when America was tired, demoralized and cynical.

Dr. King gave power rather than held power. This is the leadership lesson from Dr. King all people can still use.

The relationship between leadership and power is often confused. Leadership is about influence.

Some leaders seek to gain and hold power. Power, for them, is a scarce commodity. Few people possess power, and those who do must recognize their advantage and wield that power like a blunt instrument. In this way, the power of leadership to influence behavior is coercive and compulsory. People obey the power so long as it is exerted and forcefully applied. We have, I think, a long list of leaders who followed this model. Some have been presidents, elected officials, business leaders, and preachers. We often celebrate these kinds of leaders, yet, when we do, we celebrate what they were able to accomplish. There is a sense of separation, an apartness that comes from knowing that their accomplishments were not our own.

Some leaders seek to gain and hold power. Fewer are the leaders who find power so that they can give it to others. This is the kind of leadership Martin Luther King, Jr. showed. His Dream was not a personal fantasy of power and control. His Dream was creation of a society that allowed everyone else to recognize and develop their own dreams. He worked to create a society that gave everyone access to the tools of success as well as the opportunity to use those tools. He worked through the structure of power to make power more accessible and available. Rather than give a vision to his followers, he inspired his followers to develop their own vision. The people who marched with Dr. King 50 years ago were not marching to fulfill their leader’s vision. They were marching to fulfill their own.

Today, as we commemorate Dr. King’s contributions, we also inaugurate a president. This is a good day for America. I believe Dr. King would be humbled to know that his ability to inspire and share vision has helped Americans reach beyond broken habits of thought and elect talent and ability where found. Let us be ever mindful that the president is only one person yielding enormous power. Let us remember that leadership makes lasting change only when power is shared with others, never when it is held.And then, let us work together to use that power we share to rediscover our sense of focus, optimism and common purpose. Let us work together to make the world into the kind of place we need it to become.

Inspiration is a habit

I used to think that blogging was a self-indulgent, narcissistic pastime for people who couldn’t write Serious Things. Serious writers, I thought, struggled in private to set down their most important thoughts on pages that would be read only when a publisher recognized their native brilliance and invested in getting those thoughts out to an expectant public starved for brilliant ideas. I was wrong.

I didn’t write much while laboring under this belief. Writing was painful — a burdensome chore that must be suffered to encounter those rare moments of flow, where idea, intention and action all align.

This blog is rescuing me from that stultifying belief.

I started blogging seriously in September 2011. Before then, I had posted sporadically to LiveJournal and a few other random places. This blog at present is 109 posts strong. I feel like I am just now getting started. I now have personal goals for my blog. I keep an Evernote folder with ideas for future posts. I have met some dedicated writers and have discovered connections with friends I didn’t recognize before blogging. All to the good.

I write this blog for two reasons:

  1. To develop and sustain a daily writing habit.
  2. To overcome my crippling aversion to sharing what I write.

I read a bit about the craft of writing and have noticed a somewhat obvious correlation. Strong, successful writers write every day. Obvious, perhaps, but it struck me as a bit profound. Most successful writers, when asked to share their secret weapon, say write every day without fail. Write if it is easy. Write if it is hard. Write if it is good, bad or indifferent. Write every day. Constantly move forward. I think of this as “holding my seat”.

Holding your seat is about cultivating a practice of writing when you don’t particularly feel like writing. This is necessary to escape the belief that we must wait until we feel inspired before writing. Inspiration feels good and the best writing is often accompanied by that feeling. I cannot wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes at awkward, inconvenient moments — in the shower, laying in bed, driving my chair, sitting in a meeting. I can’t always capture the words in these moments and, when I have the time and tools to write, I can’t always be showering, lying in bed, driving or sitting in a meeting.

Writing everyday is a way of bottling that feeling of inspiration and using it when you can actually sit with it and visit for a while. This blog gives me a focus for writing every day. I am learning not to depend on inspiration, which is fickle and capricious. I believe inspiration can become a habit. Blogging cultivates the habit of drawing inspiration when I need it and can use it most effectively.

I used to write in private, guarding what I wrote from discovery until polished to perfection. The irony was that I rarely finished anything I wrote. I never stopped polishing. Writing was a secret fetish, a lonely compulsion I practiced in complete isolation. Sometimes I wrote things I thought were pretty good. Sometimes I wrote things I thought were pretty bad. It became hard to tell the difference. I found myself endlessly polishing both the good and the mediocre until it all pretty much looked the same. Blah.

I was crippled by an unwillingness to share. The act of writing is solitary but the results of writing should be shared. This isn’t because most writing deserves reading. Most of what I write probably does not need to be read. Most of what I write is not brilliant. Blogging is my way of surrendering the idea of brilliance as a worthwhile goal. Blogging allows me to shortcut that old, anguished practice of hording my words until they merit attention. It has become a creative lifeline and a source of focus around disparate ideas and inspirations. I am grateful to the people who follow what I write here and post comments. I appreciate every visit, every like.

When people read my writing, it affirms my path. It keeps me focused and protects me from feeling overwhelmed by inadequacy. I don’t share everything I write. I don’t incomplete drafts of stories or poems or notes for longer works. Those things can stay private until they feel ready.

Blogging takes the pressure off. Blogging makes writing feel more natural and relaxed. Blogging reminds me that there are lots of other people doing the same kind of work that I do, feeling the same kind of pressure or inadequacy or stress. Those feelings may be a natural part of the process but I don’t have to be captured by them. I certainly don’t have to be imprisoned by the need to wait for inspiration. Inspiration is a habit and, like all habits, can be cultivated, prepared and grown.

Resolved: Keep Lists Short

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. If I need to exercise, eat healthier, write more, <insert your own pet personal failings here> and I am waiting for a specific day to occur before I get started, the project is pretty much doomed.

That said, I am definitely a sucker for self-reflection. I practice self-scrutiny with religious fervor and New Year’s Eve is High Holy Day for me and people like me. And so, a few things I must constantly remind myself in order to have a successful 2013:

  • Pay attention.
  • Focus on doing what’s most important and do only those things that help accomplish what’s most important.
  • Say no more easily than you say yes.
  • Delete unnecessary email.
  • Don’t waste anyone’s time, especially your own.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed. Impossibly brilliant leaps forward usually result from a sequence of possible, mostly mediocre smaller steps. Do those smaller steps. Do all of them. Do them in order. Do them consistently. Do them until they are done.
  • Keep lists short.

Plumbing for the Next Creative Act

Yesterday I wrote about an interview Corey Doctorow gave to the Bizarre Assemblage in which he talks about how wrong-headed enforcement of copyright law interferes with creative progress. He talks about copying as the source of learning, refinement and, ultimately, improvement. Doctorow speaks on this theme a lot.

I have been carrying around this quote from that article all day: “[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.”

This is a lovely, direct way to say a very powerful thing. Humans are creative. We create things. Being creative is what makes us unique. Current copyright law focuses very much on the need to protect fixed expressions from theft. That is not a bad impulse. People who create things deserve credit for those things. People who make a living creating things deserve fair compensation for creating those things. No argument there. The problem arrives in the overreach. We have fetishized the end product so much that we have missed the point of what we are actually doing when we create something.

The artistic products we value — the books, movies, paintings, poems, stories, pictures, drawings, performances, music — have value because they transfer ideas. New artistic works don’t spring up from nowhere. They come from previous works. They take ideas and comment on them, enlarge them, refocus them, refute them. Artistic products tell us about ourselves and tell the people who come after us about ourselves as well.

I am very, very interested in the idea that art is really just a conversation. That the point of any creative work is simply to give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work that will give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work and so on.

When we think of ourselves this way, the work we do, all the work we do, becomes an inspiration factory. We are always building the plumbing for the next creative act. The goal is not really to write a book or make a movie or paint a picture or write a program. The goal is to propagate our best ideas, to move the species forward by mixing thoughts and ideas in a mad foam where the best ideas can combine, survive, mutate and grow.

Biology gives the example. This isn’t a one to one transfer where you give me an idea then I give the next guy an idea. This is pollination. A mad spray of ideas, inspiration and perception which mixes together in weird, unexpected, powerful ways.

We cannot control the outcomes of our creative output. Maybe we can’t even really understand it. That’s why the impulse to control and limit creative copying is a bad thing. We are limiting ourselves before we have even had a chance to see what we are capable of doing.