What’s the worst that can happen?
This idea is surely deserving of immediate retirement, but let’s pause here for a moment anyway.
Do you believe it’s true? Is death the worst that can happen?
Does the thought make you uncomfortable or is it comforting?
For me, it’s the latter. If death is the worst, then the next idea comes easily.
It is a privilege to be alive.
To be privileged is to benefit from something unearned. There is no test to pass that confers the right to be born. It’s the luck of the draw.
Never again in our lives are we so lucky.
Of course, privilege does not guarantee health or happiness.
Once we luck into our lives, we are acted upon, subject to intense pressures. Some of us happen into yet more privileges, and no one is lucky enough to make it through life without experiencing hurts and prejudices.
One of my many privileges was being born in a country whose citizens are expected to hold into our lives into our 70s.
But, as I said, a privilege is never a guarantee.
I was getting ready for a memorial service when I read Amy Winehouse was dead. The service was for a boy I knew – he was 27. And, although no one spoke of it, he likely died of an overdose. They had these things in common.
The last time I saw him, we were kids. We camped in The Dells. We spent summer vacations in Canada – swimming and boating and getting into trouble. We weren’t friends exactly; we were family.
And now the worst has happened.
He was intelligent, athletic, funny. His friends spoke of how the girls they knew always asked about him.
Everything seemed to come so easily to him.
What a fucking waste.
That thought keeps creeping into my mind, but I know it’s too simplistic.
It’s wrong to think of our lives as commodities that can be used up or wasted.
We luck into the privilege of life. And then it’s ours to use.
I choose to live mindfully. I increasingly feel that my purpose is to remove barriers between people by writing and speaking about things typically left unsaid.
I choose to use my talent for PR in service of a group of people that I deeply want to see succeed. That’s what this business of mine is about.
I choose to spend the privilege of my existence in service.
But I am unwilling to force my values onto another.
We all share this privilege of life.
It’s the only lucky break that matters. The rest is up to you.
When I went to college, I tacked on additional courses to my English major, so I could specialize in creative writing.
I didn’t yet think of myself as a writer. Adding creative writing to my course load was an act of self punishment. On its own, lit was just gonna be too easy.
That bit of arrogance was long gone by the time I spent an entire semester studying James Joyce. Did we start with something accessible like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Oh no, Ulysses was assigned as summer reading to prep for the course.
So, my lit classes were tougher than I anticipated. And I soon learned I was right about those writing courses.
They were brutal.
We were required to write poetry, something I still don’t enjoy. We split into pairs and swapped pieces for immediate feedback. We read our work aloud.
In the process, I developed the most important quality a writer — or artist of any kind — can hope for.
I am a pro at taking criticism.
Criticism is a non-negotiable ingredient in sharpening your creativity.
We’re not talking about nagging, scolding or name-calling. That’s just bullying.
Criticism is nothing more than feedback on the merits on your work.
And, it can be hard to come by.
People are conditioned to be nice. We don’t want to offend. We hold our tongues, because it’s somehow more acceptable to watch our friends flounder and fail than recommend they try a new approach.
When we do finally let our opinions loose, they often carry a sprinkling of reproach. We’ve held what could be incredibly helpful observations inside so long that our exasperation leads.
We have to train in the fine art of giving and receiving criticism.
If criticism is something you’ve avoided, it’s best to start in a controlled environment. By observing a trained facilitator, you can quickly pick up on the nuances of a critique.
I’ve taken two courses for creatives that I highly recommend in this regard:
For writers: Bindu Wiles’ Diamond Cutters.
For painters: Get Your Paint On with Lisa Congdon and Mati McDonough.
Outside of observation, there are certain qualities you can develop to give and receive criticism like a pro.
Disassociate the work from the person. When an idea is given form by a creator, it takes on its own qualities — both intended and accidental. Treat the work as its own life force.
Compliment first and often. Every work has something to compliment, whether it’s a technique, the seed of an idea or an interesting turn of phrase. While “criticism” carries negative associations, critique focuses on the transcendent as well as areas that could benefit from focused attention.
Take it slowly. Everyone has a different tolerance level for critique. Both when giving and receiving criticism, take it very, very slowly, especially if you’re just starting out.
Criticize the work, never the creator. In college, we were taught to consider the influence of the author on the text. This can be illuminating, but in a critique, avoid muddying your feedback by judging the creative personality behind the work.
Ask questions. If you are giving the critique, ask the creator what they’d like you to react to. When receiving, make sure you ask questions to clarify any feedback you don’t fully understand — or to cover areas that may have been skipped.
What is your experience with criticism? Is there anything you’d add to this list?
When the initial rush of traffic from my guest post at Zen Habits came over, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would people read a few posts? Would they subscribe to the feed? Would they comment?
I was anxious.
And totally unprepared. I didn’t anticipate that brand-new readers would leave their own comments filled with the same level of depth and personality that I’ve come to love and expect from my long-time readers.
Honestly, it weirded me out at first.
We barely know each other, I thought.
Until I realized how utterly contradictory this line of thinking is to my core beliefs.
When we construct walls between ourselves, we fool ourselves into thinking we are protected.
In the process, we unwittingly build ourselves pretty little cages.
These cages are easy to identify by their underlying pulse of fear.
I can’t ask for help on this project, because my boss will think I’m incompetent.
I won’t ask that guy on a date, because I’ll have to face him in class tomorrow.
I’m not pitching that guest post, because my blog is too small.
What if I’m rejected?
The key to escaping our cages is to practice vulnerability.
Unfortunately, no one is ever going to fear rejection and reflexively say, Yes, I am willing to open myself up to that.
Luckily, vulnerability comes in as many forms as there are people. We can choose from infinite practices.
Sharing a piece of yourself through writing is practicing vulnerability.
Honoring your wisdom or hard-earned knowledge is supremely vulnerable.
Writing an e-mail to someone you admire to thank them for their work is a practice in vulnerability.
Hell, asking that cute guy for his number. That’s vulnerability.
Or telling your partner, I need you today.
Back to those three examples: work, dating, blogging.
They all turned out okay for me.
Sure, I’ve danced around what I’ve wanted. Sometimes I happened to luck into it good situations. And yes, I’ve gotten shot down while asking for what I wanted.
After all, we can only control our own behavior.
But, let me ask you this. Why comment? Is it because you perceive that I’ve constructed giant walls around myself?
I like to think that I get the kinds of comments I do, because I’m vulnerable on the page. Because I care about the kind of relationships I’m developing and the people who are reading. That’s why I bother.
There are no shortcuts.
When I get incredibly burnt out and need to take a break from everything, I play The Sims for days on end. It’s the perfect escape for an extrovert. You still get the benefit of interaction, but it’s all under your control. The rules of engagement clearly demonstrate cause and effect. Crack a few jokes, chat a bit and cuddle on the couch, and you’ll eventually get to kiss another Sim.
Of course, there are tricks and shortcuts built into the game. The longer you play The Sims, the more able you are to manipulate the little world to get the results you want.
Unfortunately, that’s never the case in the real world.
The more we try to manipulate the environment around us, the less we get what we want.
Our only recourse is to admit our interdependence.
After all, even Sims get needy if you leave them in a cage for too long.