Reliance and Self Control in an iPhone World

For the last few months, my iPhone has been getting progressively worse.

I’ve tried to clean out the dirt and grime in the charger port, but it still forces me to hold the charging cable suspended at an 87.54 degree angle with exactly thirteen tons of metric pressure pushing up to get a charge.

It all finally hit the fan last night when I couldn’t get the dang thing to work, and while trying to apply the metric tons of pressure necessary, the cable-head itself broke.

I’ve spent the first 45 minutes of my morning feeling frustrated beyond belief. I’ve been scouring the internet for simple fixes, researched how I might be able to tear my phone apart and replace the charging port, and come to the conclusion that I hate life. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

It’s a phone.

Why do I care so much about a phone? You’d think I was fretting about a dying relative by my mopey nature and random outbursts of anger. But this phone has become so much a part of how I do things – of how I run my day and how I function in this world – that being without it for even a few hours or days makes me feel naked.

And now I feel a little disgusted with myself.

Because I am currently allowing a device that is literally smaller than my hand ruin my day. Because I let it get this far. Because at some point in my life I decided this small device was so necessary in fact that I would intertwine it with the way I do things. And for years I’ve reinforced this mentality until I find myself here, broken iPhone and irritated expression.

I fumbled through one of my favorite pieces of advice from a good book, and I found a list of things humans should try to embody.

Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and… what’s that last one? Oh yeah…

Self Control.

The peace is hard enough to come by in this world of constant distractions. When’s the last time we even heard silence? I read a statistic that back in 1940 it took approximately 10 hours to record 1 hour of silence, of a complete absence of sound. In 2010 the same 1 hour of silence took 3.5 months to record. But even while I struggle greatly to find that quiet place, that struggle is microscopic in comparison to my lack of self control.

I can’t skip a meal without my day being ruined.

I can’t go a few hours without a phone.

I can’t skip Game of Thrones on a Sunday night (and literally watch it on Monday) because even this… a television series… is too great a sacrifice for me.

When athletes train, they spend countless hours preparing their body for the grueling season of activity ahead of them. They do this, put in the time and the work and the preparation, so that they can perform at the highest level possible. And all of that work comes to fruition when the season begins, and those who worked hard rise to the top of the ranks above those who didn’t give it their all.

It’s not about abstaining from things just to prove I can. Nor is it about feeling better when I lack something.

It’s about control.

I want to have control over my body and my mind, not the other way around.

So for today, I’m going to ignore the fact that my phone doesn’t work.

I’m going to turn it off because it won’t charge anyways. But I’m going to leave it off. And I’m not leaving it off because I want to feel better about myself for today. Or because I want to prove I can do it.

I’m going to leave my phone off because I need to learn a little more self control and a little less reliance.

Because there is no greater season than life. And we should all be training constantly for it. Trying to be better. Working towards the type of people we are capable of being.

And I think we could all use a little more self control. Don’t you?


Let’s Chat, Hungry Blog Machine

Creating content is the pits.

And I don’t mean the pits like a pothole or a shallow recess in your back lawn. I mean the gravel pits. The deep well pits. The biting into a peach not realizing it’s a peach and recoiling from shattering multiple teeth pits.

And really, there’s no way around it.

As a writer, I want to make words my job. Yet somehow every Monday when I try to sit down to write a blog, I find myself lacking words. Quite a feat for me, who can’t even say hello without making it a story.

But this is the nature of work, isn’t it? Reminds me of college. I love reading books, yet the moment my college professor told me to read a specific book, literally every other book on the planet looked more appealing. I fonud myself standing in a Barnes & Noble one day, staring at a book on programming JavaScript and thinking about buying it instead of reading In Cold Blood (which is now one of my favorite books).

I mean, it’s insane. Work always feels so — workish.

And yet, if I can find something ELSE to do, something to divide my attention, I turn into this writing and editing machine. Or if someone turns up the pressure, perhaps by offering an opportunity and a deadline, all of the sudden I’m a bullet train. Unstoppable.

The thing that has always worked for me is flat out propaganda. I spin everything in a positive light for myself, like that lobbyist from Thank You For Smoking. I tell myself that little steps are actually big ones. I find the insane life-changing possibilities in small opportunities.

And when other people ask me how my writing is going, I share… oh I share… too much at times. I try to get them on the roller coaster ride because it keeps me on the roller coaster ride too.

But, honestly, there’s a lot of logic in this mentality.

I was once talking to a band that had hit it quite big and toppled off the edge of the mountain. I asked this band questions on what it felt like, to be on top, and surprisingly they told me they didn’t even realize that’s where they were until they were falling back towards the bottom.

“When you’re in it, you barely even notice. You’re too focused on the plan, on what to do next. You never pause to figure out where you are.”

That’s the truth, isn’t it? When you’re in it, you don’t get it. Until you’re not in it and you realize there’s something missing.

My wife was telling me a story a few days ago (she’s brilliant like that) about a woman who was extremely poor, won the lottery, and then went back to having nothing. She was being interviewed by a news outlet, and what she had to say was enlightening.

“Having all that money, all that wealth and all those things, that wasn’t happiness. No. Happiness was sharing half a cigarette with my husband to curb the hunger. Happiness was sitting on that porch with nothing, no money or stuff, barely enough cash to buy food, alternating taking a drag so the bread would stick in our bellies. That was happiness.”

You can’t miss what you have. You can only miss what you lost.

So today, as I furiously take another pass at my novel to meet a personal deadline, I’m going to enjoy the work. Because I will lose today. It’s a fact. One I can’t control.

Today I’m going to work hard, and when I’m done I’m going to hug my wife and kiss her, and snuggle with my puppy who’s growing older, and go practice music that I volunteer to play on Sunday — and I’m going to enjoy all of it — because I need to learn a new habit. I need to learn how to be happy where I am now.

Because a blog may imitate life, but I still have to live it the best way I know how.

You’re Valuable, Right Now, And Here’s Why…

The Show

In all the years of playing music, I remember one particular show above all others.

It was a show on a college campus, with three bands at various stages in their music careers.

The closing (big) band had been on national radio, then later were let go from their label. They were nice any time I ran into them outside of shows and during shows for the most part. Before this particular show, they decided to spend all of their time in the green room, right up until the moment they set foot on stage.

This move didn’t particularly bug me. It happens from time to time. I’ve felt this way before and acted on it, especially during a longer or more grueling tour.

The second band had just recently been signed to one of the big 5 labels on a sweet deal. Prior to signing, I’d met and connected with them more than once. I’d been to their shows. A few of them had come to mine. We worked with the same producer. We had an amicable relationship.

But once signing a contract, they seemed to have the impression they no longer required the assistance of any band or individual from their hometown anymore. They were bigger than that. So they too spent the entirety of the show in their own separate green room, both prior to playing and after they finished and the closing band went on stage. Nearest I can tell, they felt like they were above speaking with people before the concert.

And then there was the local (opening) band. These are guys I knew well. We had played shows together. We loved running into one another. We were both fighting for recognition and felt as if we were on the same footing, just beneath the cusp of success. We worked hard. We looked out for one another. We helped each other out. We played shows for free to help the other bands draw for big events and they did the same for us.

I stood outside with local band and we discussed how frustrating it was that newly-signed band and formerly-signed-big-radio-band refused to come outside. We talked about how we’d never do that. If we ever made it to that level, we wouldn’t ignore the people who helped us get there, and we’d still show love to those who weren’t as far as we were. I had respect for these guys. They seemed to have respect for me.

And then they too got signed. And they stopped returning my phone calls. Stopped responding to my messages on facebook. Stopped asking me for help or offering it.

A few months later, they put on a show in their hometown. They asked “next local hot commodity” band to play, a band they had openly professed to dislike prior to this moment for being the epitome of everything we were angry at. Next hot commodity band was always nice to bands above them, and they were downright awful to everyone else. My favorite local band wanted draw, and apparently felt as though my own group was not capable of giving them that. They outgrew me. I couldn’t help them anymore, so they decided our relationship was worth terminating.

Now, I’m no stranger to how the world works. I’m not ignorant. I get it. And how the world works isn’t what made me angry. Because there will always be this hierarchy. There will always be a “next hot commodity band” and a “favorite local band” and a “newly signed band” and a “big band.”

What made me angry is that we (local band and I) talked about how the world works, and how messed up it is, and how we weren’t going to be that. And then they became that anyways.

The Reaction

Now, I’m not a bitter person or a grudge-holder, but I’d be kidding myself if some part of me doesn’t still sort of hope the worst for them. I still think about it when I see them come to town, or post pictures about their adventures or their lives. I still wonder if they got what they wanted, and if they knew what they wanted all along. Maybe while we were talking, they were thinking about how they couldn’t wait to spend all their time in that green room. Or maybe they were thinking about casting me off the moment they moved to the next round.

I have to correct myself openly when I feel this way. I need to say the words out loud. I love them. And it’s not because they did something notable or because they had some modicum of success. It’s because they were good people once, and I have to believe they’re still trying to be good people now – whether I feel it or not. I can be frustrated. I can feel angry. But I shouldn’t abandon them, despite what happened.

Because someday I will be in their shoes. Someday I will be faced with the challenges they faced, and I’ll have to make my own choice. Because one day they might come to me and I might have a choice to make – to continue the cycle or to break it.

And that’s why the process gets repeated, isn’t it? Because I was mad at them for what they did, and later I get to do it myself. And it’s not just them, no. I get to repeat the whole process for any other new band or artist or writer who happened to meet me once. Because that’s how the world works, right? The world is just a big jumble of cause and effect.

Step 1) Get screwed.

Step 2) Pay it forward.

And if I do that… the world will stay the way it is. The way it always has been. If I give into that feeling, that desire to return blow for blow – nothing will ever change.

The Result

I don’t believe in karma.

It just isn’t my thing.

I believe in killing with kindness. And I don’t mean only those who can help me, or those who are ahead of me, or those who would make valuable friends. I mean everyone. I mean the high school student who just now learned they wanted to write books. I mean the kid in the college band who can barely organize his fingers into a G chord. I mean the somebodies AND the nobodies. Because I am a nobody. And I am a somebody.

If I believe we’re better than this – then I have to be better. And that means I have to go out there and achieve the things I want to achieve, and prove that it won’t make me a hypocrite. I need to put my money where my mouth is.

And this particular blog entry?

This is accountability.

And I expect to be held accountable.

This is proof that before I become whatever it is that I will become, I said these words and I meant them. Because I have plans, and I want progress, but I won’t have that progress tainted by tossing people who are no longer valuable by the wayside.

Because right now, in this moment of nobody-ness, I am valuable.

I may not have sold a book to a publisher, or earned a Grammy, or been on the radio, or done anything that the world deems as worthy… but what I’ve accomplished in the view of the public doesn’t define me.

I am defined by moments like this one – moments when I decide who I am and why. And the only thing that changes later, after I get my first Grammy or I sell my first book or I get my first major writing credit, is simply whether or not I continue to be that person.

And if you think for one moment you aren’t valuable, you’re wrong too. I don’t care what you’ve accomplished and what you haven’t accomplished. I don’t care what you think you deserve. I only care about one thing – who you were before and who you are now.

Are you changing for the better? Are you trying to make progress – to work towards being the type of person you wish others would be? Are you searching for truth? Or are you seeking your own gain?

Because if you’re trying, if you’re seeking, if you’re working on it… you’re worth your weight in gold.

How Many Critique Partners Is Too Many?

Things That Writers Can Learn From Musicians –

This coming month, I’m doing a series on what writers can learn from musicians and vice versa. This is the first test-run of these posts. I’ve spent 10 years immersed in the music industry, done multiple national tours and had the honor of playing with the likes of bands much larger than me (some of which are now on television/radio). Now I write books and pitch agents on these works, with dreams of traditional publication.

(Critique Partners: The Story)

I love learning about things that I had no idea existed.

I’m sure a cross section of my brain would produce quite the electrically charged image during one of these “Eureka” moments.

I like these moments less (though I still very much value them) when they happen publically. Recently, one such moment happened when I was offering a manuscript trade with a twitter friend. She called me out on my lack of knowledge by politely saying “No offense, but don’t you already have critique partners?”

The moment she said this, it dawned on me that the word ‘partner’ implied a small number. So I went to “the google” and asked it questions.

What I found was very enlightening.

Turns out, the average was around 2-5 critique partners, and writers generally hold this select group in very high regard. These are people that a writer knows and trusts, generally people who have critiqued previous works and whose writing the author really values. Makes sense, right? You value someone else’s work, so you should get critiques from them!

I get it, but I’d like to respectfully disagree.

And before you guffaw and annihilate me in the comments, hear me out.

(How Does It Work In Music)

In music, the closest thing one has to a critique partner is a producer.

These are people whose opinions you value, who have an unobstructed and impartial view on your work and who can provide you with unsurpassed advice on how to change your songs to make them better.

I suppose the comparison isn’t exactly one to one.

A producer is more like the LAST critique partner you have. The one who tells you everything you’ve done up to this point is nearly there — and here’s how we’ll put it over the top. Occasionally they perform open-heart surgery on a song, but generally speaking they are working with you because (like a CP) they value what you’ve created so far and see how to land the plane.

So let’s talk about the songwriting process (for me at least).

1) Write song
2) Review with band (they hate it)
3) Rewrite song, go back to #2 (probably 20+ times)

4) (and here’s the difference) Play for live audience of some kind (Notice: Not go to studio)

5) Go back to 3 and 2 until satisfied.
6) Send songs to prospective producer.
7) Hit the studio. Fix final touches with producer.

The point of doing in this order is pretty simple.

Who buys a song? Strangers (and your parents).

And there are a LOT more strangers buying your song (if you did it right) than parents. Having a strangers input at this stage (step 4, not step 7) in the songwriting process is invaluable. This is when your song is being overhauled, chopped to bits, chucked in the trash can, completely ruined and rewritten.

And you do this after your first filter but before your producer because?

Strangers don’t know you. They don’t care about your silly song. And they’re more than happy to rip you to shreds for it when you pry.

This is the moment when you find out what you have.

(What Can A Writer Learn From This?)

In writing, by comparison, you have very few critique partners. These are people whose opinions you value above all else, who have built a rapport with you and whose writing you respect a great deal (as mentioned above). Much like a producer, this advice is invaluable.

So the process (as I understand it) for a writer is this –

1) Write your first draft.
2) Rewrite your draft a few times (same as music)
3) Show to critique partners (as in 2-5 people you know and trust). Repeat 2 as much as needed.

4) (and here’s the strange thing) Send book to agents. (who do not know or trust you).

5) If agented – get professional edit.
6) More editing until you memorized it word for word, creating a (close to) final draft.
7) Send to beta-readers (aka fans who like you who can give you their first impressions when MOST of the editing is already done)

Now, is it just me, or does this seem crazy? If I’m willing to show a 3 minute song to a group of 100 strangers to rip to shreds, why again am I hiding my little manuscript during all the chopping and destroying?

Now I know, you’re going to say “hold on Mr. Brian. How can showing strangers a piece of garbage be helpful? I’m just going to lose fans that I’ve gained.”

My response? You won’t. Not if they’re fans. That’s not how it works. Assuming that steps 1-3 have happened at least a handful of times, your book is going to be 80% there. Sure it may have errors. Sure it may have issues. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t that when you actually want to know if you’ve wasted your time? Isn’t that the time when a stranger’s opinion is the most valuable thing on the planet?

(Giant Disclaimer Time)

I see you there, with your pitchfork and your torch… and you better believe I’ve locked up my castle gates and I’m praying to God you won’t break in… but let me extinguish a little of your fire before the nighttime riots begin.

I believe in the CP system. I think it works. It’s good to have those opinions you know and trust. But consider the first word. Critique. As in critic. As in someone who expects you to stink, or who doesn’t care if you fail.

Now I get it, most good CP’s are harsh. They smell blood and they attack. But let me propose one thing to you all – think of those whom you critique. Do you want them to succeed? Do you respect them? Do you think they’re good writers with little issues that you like to point out? If so, you’re opinion (no matter how harsh) is already at minimum influenced and at maximum totally jaded.

Again – I’m not saying this is bad. A long-time critique partner may very well be harsher than a new one… BUT – by definition they likely know your work. By definition you’ve likely worked with them before and heard their little voice in your head as you made decisions. You’ve eliminated some of their pet peeves. You’ve eradicated words that drive them nuts. You’re going to get at least one or two pats on the back. Live in that world too long, and improvement may actually be synonymous with catering to a CP’s likes and dislikes.

The fact is, unless your CP is a time traveler (and mine are dang near close), their opinion is not that of a first time reader. Their opinion is equal to a reader who read your first book, liked it, and (as a fan) they’re choosing to read a new book. The more books they read, the more their expectation is different than that of a first time reader. No matter how much they rip your manuscript to bits and pieces, they still believe you are capable of creating a worthy book. A first time reader doesn’t share this opinion (not yet).

Let me get to the point.

My point ISNT to get rid of your wonderful CP’s.

My point ISNT that having CP’s who aren’t first time readers have no value.

My point ISNT that your current lot of CP’s is garbage and should be discarded.

My point IS that your current CP’s are not strangers. And more strangers buy your books than CP’s (if you did it right).

I realize this is heresy. And I expect backlash. I’m not looking to rock the boat, just question the shape of it and proposing a different view (from a critical perspective, having no love or hate for the current system).

The way I see it, by the time a book hits first time reader hands, it’s already pretty set in stone. And that’s a lot of time to spend on something before really knowing what you have. Why not include beta readers in the process? Why not include strangers, other writers who write in your genre who are willing to commit hours to a book from an author they’ve never read?

Maybe their advice will be garbage. Maybe you won’t listen to a word of it. Or maybe they’re in some ways better suited to give you honest feedback than a critique partner who trusts you’ll wrap up those 1000 plot lines or that your voice for a character is within the “acceptable range” for your writing — because your character voice always starts slow and finishes strong.

Because I would argue the best critique you ever got from your CP was the first one, when they had no basis for who you were or whether you were any good at this thing called writing, and when they truly had an outside perspective. After all, that’s why you’ve kept them around. They were honest. They struck the heart of the issue. They had a view outside of your own.

So I need a raise of hands, a role call so to speak.

What do you think? Or is everyone preparing the torches? 🙂

If You’re Gonna Fail… The Least You Can Do Is Fail Because You’re Awful

This American Life (ruined my life for like an hour)

My wife loves to listen to This American Life.

It’s a brilliant show, perfect for canoe rides. I fish while she lies back tanning and listening to the show on her phone. She fishes too, mind you — and often she catches more than I do.

If you’ve never listened to This American Life, and you want to get super hopeful or depressed about the state of this world, let me just take a moment to recommend it to you. A host retells amazing stories mixed in with interviews from the people involved and it always contains extraordinary circumstances or events. It’s brilliant.

One episode we listened to detailed a psychologist who ran a test for sociopathology and psychopathology on a bunch of certifiably crazy prisoners and then on a bunch of CEO’s and businessmen. Ironically enough, the two groups tested very similarly. There was one notable difference. The CEO’s had a spin.

They called failures – opportunities.

They called weaknesses – growth initiatives.

They called manipulating people to get what you want – guiding them in the right direction that just happened to be their own.

This episode certainly had me wondering if I was a psychopath for wanting to be successful some day (see what I mean about throwing your world for a loop?) but eventually (an hour or two later) I got over this. It’s not crazy to want to succeed. It’s actually pretty natural. But what this episode really did for me was illustrate the power of a word. Why was it so important for these hyper-successful people to change their vocabulary?

And that got me wondering about the meaning of the word failure.

“Words Matter A Great Deal, You Should Care About Them More” – F. Underwood

Failure, in regards to dreams, means creating a goal and falling short of it. Now, sometimes this goal has a limited time span. Going to the summer Olympics. Making the Varsity team. Getting into Harvard.

But more often than not, our goals are less time-oriented. Opening a business. Buying a personal zoo. Becoming a writer.

In the more time-oriented way, failure has a pretty simple meaning. It means time ran out. We only have so much of it, and we can only shove so much effort in a limited space. But for the latter… failure means something completely different.

You see, I think there are only two kinds of failure in these much more common situations when a small window isn’t the issue..

Either you’re in the first category, and you fail because you quit.

You decide that your dream is too hard to achieve. You tell yourself that you’re just not good enough or that time is the problem. You say you got busy, that you had to refocus. All of these are just different ways to say you quit.

But the second category of failure makes the first kind look silly. You fail because you changed what success meant when you got scared.

Because quitting isn’t really quitting if you just change the rules and goals. I didn’t really want THAT job. I just wanted something like it. It’s not like I need to paint as a PROFESSION, selling a painting is enough. Going to South Dakota is enough world travelling for me. I don’t really need to set foot on another continent.

You Can Be Anything You Want To Be, As Long As You Want It More Than Breathing

Now, before I go further, let me clarify something. I am terrible at art. Just terrible at it. And it’s not like I couldn’t do an okay job or be a pretty passable artist if I spent every day drawing from now until 30 years from now (maybe 60 years is more accurate) — but the truth is I’d probably never be that great at art.

Because the most important thing that no one will ever tell you is that you can be anything you want to be, as long as you want it more than breathing.

I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean you need to spend every day thinking about it. Every day practicing at it. To be truly good at something, really very good at it, you need to devote most everything you have to it. Because if you don’t want it more than you want air, someone else wants it more. If all you can manage is a little guitar practice every other day, you’re not going to turn into Steve Vai. That fire in your belly, the drive to succeed that is so much more powerful than any fear of failure, that’s what you need to get good at something. Being okay (or even good) at it in the first place is just a more-advanced starting point.

When I realized this a few months ago, I realized I needed to make a new habit. So for the last two months, I’ve woken up every weekday at 5am, arrived at a local coffee shop at 6am, and started writing for two hours before work. And every night before I go to bed, I try to read for an hour or so before I fall asleep. If I want to be a writer, these are the habits I need to do it well.

If you consider the cannon of successful human beings in the world — there is one thing that every single one of them has in common. By definition, they didn’t quit. They didn’t give up or change what success meant. They pressed on despite everything that stood in their way and they refused to let anything stop them. They all worked harder than they thought was possible.

You see, the truth is — if you’re going to fail at something, the least you can do is fail because you’re awful.

What I’m trying to say is this: don’t sell yourself short. If you want to be good at something, develop those habits. I know I’m trying right there with you. Work harder than you knew was possible. Think about it when you can’t work on it and work on it when you can’t think about it any longer without making progress. Make it a part of your daily routine. Commit to it in a way you never imagined possible. Give it everything you’ve got.

That way — if it all falls apart, you can look back and truly say you gave it your all. You won’t need an excuse if it doesn’t work out. You won’t need to convince yourself you failed because of this or that and you won’t need to redefine your dreams. You can just admit that you’re very best simply wasn’t enough. But if you really do this, if you really apply the time it takes to get very good at something, if you really drive at it with all you have and want it more than breathing… I have a feeling you won’t fail.

You’ll take that word and change it. You’ll call it a detour when you don’t make the kind of progress you hoped for and you’ll redouble your efforts. You won’t give in because that’s even more insane than anything else. You won’t stop breathing and you won’t stop working at what you love.

If you do that — if you apply all that time and effort into your dream — ‘not enough effort’ won’t be the reason you failed.

And if you ask me, I’d rather fail because I’m terrible, not because I didn’t try hard enough.