The Importance of Being and Doing

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. I’m always working toward something, which gives me motivation to keep on keeping on. The problem with being a goal-oriented person is that at some point the goal is achieved, and then there’s an awkward period since I’m not sure who I am without something to aim for. In his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle warns against being too achievement oriented. It’s not that he thinks we shouldn’t accomplish goals, it’s just that he’s wary of how so many of us are always focused on the future to the neglect of our lives in this moment. When I do that I’ll be happy. When I have this I’ll be happy. When we’re consumed by thoughts of the future, Tolle warns, we’re not appreciating what we have in this moment.

I’m currently rereading The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, and I appreciate the message more now than I did when I read it years ago. I’ll always have plans for the future, that’s too much a part of who I am, but now I’m learning to be in the moment. Right now I’m thankful that I have this time to write. I find that I have to remind myself to be grateful. It’s all too easy for me to get caught up in the negatives (some real but most imagined) since I’m a worrier. I could blame it on my worrier of a mother, or my worrier of a brother, or I could say it’s just my overactive brain’s way of processing the oddities of this world. But then I remind myself, as Tolle says, to leave aside the memories of the past and concerns about the future and focus on this moment, and in this moment I am fine. I have to remind myself that I have permission to simply be.

I agree with the heart of Tolle’s message—that now is the most important time we have since now is all there really is—but I do think it’s okay to imagine the future I want. I can’t live in the future, but now, today, I can take actions that will help me create the life I want. In a moment of deep understanding, so sharp and bright it was like a blast of sunlight illuminating my thoughts, I understood my goals in a completely different way. The epiphany that comes with an important realization is much like Dorothy understanding there’s no place like home; in other words, what you really want has often been right in front of you all along. What do I want more than anything? What do I love more than anything? Writing. I love writing. I want to make my living as a writer. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted, but the desire has been pressed aside for one reason or another. Further introspection helped me realize that I’ve been scattered in how I approached my writing. Either I pursued writing relentlessly or I let it fall by the wayside. I did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, seeing some good results here, some great results there when I was lucky, but I was never consistent in a way that allowed for sustainable growth.

I am at a point now where I’m learning to stay focused on this moment, as in right now while my fingers press the letters on my laptop keyboard, searching for the words and the meanings I want to share with you. I’m learning to be grateful for what I have when I have it. Losing someone you love really hits that lesson home, hard. I had to say good-bye to my cute little red-headed boy cat, Chuck, who lost his battle with cancer about a month ago. I’ve been staying strong because I remember all the joy he brought me over 12 years, but those of you who love your pets know that their loss is no different from that of losing a family member because they are family members. I’m in the moment when I play with my three girl cats because they make me laugh. I’m accepting where I am in my life, and at the same time I’m doing things that will help me enjoy my life more in the moment. For example, I just finished rereading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and, again, the book resonates for me more during this second reading. I’m organizing all my spaces, donating clothing and books and recycling old papers and magazines. Marie Kondo is right: there is magic in tidying up! Decluttering not only frees up shelf space, but also brain space. I’m not sure how the two are connected, but they are. I’m decluttering financially as well, weeding out expenses I no longer need. I cut the cord with my cable company, something I had been considering for some time since they raised my rates yet again and I found myself paying for TV channels I didn’t even watch. I’m considering what’s really important to me and what I really want from my life. The more I declutter both my home and my brain, the more I’m able to focus on the moment instead of being distracted by this, that, and every other thing.

For me, it’s hard to be in the now and not at all consider what the future might hold. I’m not as evolved as Tolle, I guess. But I am learning to be at peace with where I am in the journey now. It’s not about being obsessed with the future at the expense of being with those, human and animal, I love, and it’s not about spending every waking moment with a telescope pointed with one gleaming eye only toward the future. It’s about accepting where I am right and then making choices that will help me steer my ship so that my future heads in the direction I want to go. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that success is not about external achievements: I have this many college degrees, I’ve sold this many books, I’ve been on these bestseller lists. Success is about acceptance, gratitude, and making peace with the journey. I feel like I’ve come back to writing with a new vigor, a new purpose, and a new vision. All the wrong turns were worth it if I feel at peace with where I am now.

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Dare To Do Nothing: Replenishing the Creative Well

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas.

I was looking forward to summer vacation from both work and school as a time to focus on my novel full time. I think this is why I’ve never been worried about having a day job—even with my day job I still get summers off to write full time. Then a funny thing happened—nothing.

The novel was stalled. Where my last three novels were written fairly quickly in less than a year (that’s quickly for me, mind you), my current novel was stubborn and not coming as easily as I would have liked. I didn’t understand the characters as well as I thought I did. I felt the plot was lacking, though I couldn’t tell you why. I wondered and worried myself crazy, and while I tried to work on the book I realized I was getting nowhere fast. That’s when I came up with the radical idea of putting my writing aside for a while and leaving it alone. Normally, I allow the story some baking time after the first draft, which I had done, but then when I went to write the second draft there wasn’t much more than there had been for the first draft. The second draft is a little better than the first, but it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s definitely not publishable. For my last three novels, once I made it past the “shitty first draft” stage and had a complete second draft I was, except for revising and editing, home free. This one not so much. I was getting so frustrated I was ready to throw in the towel and forget the novel altogether.

I hadn’t suffered from writer’s block in this form since I first began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009. What if I never have another good idea? What if being a doc student has sucked away all my brain power and I simply can’t write fiction until I’m finished with my degree? What if this is it and my creativity is gone, finished, kaput? You know how writers panic when the ideas aren’t flowing. Then I started thinking about how I’ve been writing novels constantly for the last six years without a break. Since 2009, I’ve published seven novels. And the scholarly writing I do for school is creative in its own way since it takes creativity to figure out how to take information from various sources and construct a well-organized, persuasive narrative. Maybe, I thought, just maybe my creativity isn’t kaput as much as just tired.

I’ve suffered, like many of you, from what they call the Do Something Syndrome at Farnam Street blog. Even on my days off I feel like I have to constantly be working at something—whether it’s writing, editing, schoolwork, marketing, social media, whatever. I started reading a lot about stillness and how doing nothing can help to fill your creative well. Here’s a great post from one of my favorite websites, Zen Habits, called The Number 1 Habit of Highly Creative People where the artists talk about stillness and doing nothing as a way to stay creative. There are a number of other articles out there on the same topic. Doing nothing? I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I was willing to try since my creative well definitely needed replenishing. This hiatus was going to be different from the baking time since baking time is where, though I’m not actively writing, I’m still working on the novel because I’m reading, researching, and finding other ways to immerse myself in the story. This time I was going to leave the story completely alone and give myself a rest from even thinking about the novel.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

How have I been spending my days? Well, I haven’t been working on the novel, which is how I thought I would be spending this summer. I haven’t even felt guilty about not working on it—most of the time. Writers are great at laying the guilt trip on themselves, aren’t they? Whenever I see a book I’ve read for research laying around my desk, I remind myself that I’m filling my creative well and look the other way. Instead, I’ve been sitting on my little patio with my cat Ellie as we watch the Las Vegas desert sky turn from pale blue to slate gray as the thunder-filled clouds move in. I’ve gone to the park down the street with its fake lake (the water is real even if the lake is man made) and looked at the ducks, the boats, the pretty houses, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve been exercising and doing yoga after a bout of laziness. I’ve discovered the charms of adult coloring books (they’re just regular coloring books with more intricate details, folks. I know what you were thinking…). I used to love to color when I was a kid, and it turns out I still do. I’ve always considered myself a wannabe artsty-craftsy kind of person. I love watching the how-to-paint-flowers shows they have on PBS, and I even dabbled in painting with acrylics a few years ago. While coloring isn’t exactly an original piece of art, I enjoy the chance to play with colors and I’ve rediscovered the fun of crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors. I’ve been reading a lot, finishing two or three books a week. I’ve been watching some good TV shows, movies, and documentaries (yes, I watch documentaries for fun). Saying that I’ve been doing nothing isn’t quite accurate, but I haven’t been writing fiction, thinking about writing fiction, or, most importantly, worrying about writing ficiton. I’ve just been enjoying my days and filling them however I want to rather than stressing myself out about what I thought I should be doing.

Then, a couple of months into my self-imposed exile from writing fiction, I read a couple of novels that gave me some ideas for my own story. I still have things to figure out, but at least I have a few ideas now where before I had nothing. I refuse to start worrying again about when or how the book will be written. If it takes me two years instead of one to write, then so be it. I’d rather spend two years writing the story I meant to write than publish whatever just to get something out. Everything happens in its own time. I’ve always known that, but I find I need a reminder every now and again.

How I Conduct My Business by Leo Babauta

Feeling zen in the Japanese Garden in Portland, OR

Feeling zen in the Japanese Garden in Portland, OR

I’ve been a fan of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits for a few years now and I check his website at least once a week. I love his spirituality-based messages about finding inner peace and being true to yourself. I love that he isn’t didactic in his posts. He’s not trying to sermonize or preachify or testify. He’s simply sharing what he’s learned as he struggles (like the rest of us) to be as centered as he can in this crazy world of ours.

I wanted to share this post that Leo published on February 17, 2014. While I love all of Leo’s articles, this one really hit home for me and I find myself still thinking about it months later. As an independent author, I’ve had some choices to make regarding how I conduct the business end of my enterprise. The creative side of it, the writing stories part of it, is a no brainer for me. I write fiction. It’s who I am. But I had to learn the business aspect of publishing from the ground up, and it’s been an eye-opening experience. Even with the success I’ve had with the Loving Husband Trilogy there was a time when I wasn’t happy about it. I should be selling even more, I thought. I should be doing more. At least that’s what all the book marketing articles said. Then one day I realized that I’m doing all right. I really am. Reading this post from Leo helped me come to the conclusion I had already started to form on my own…that it’s okay for me to pursue my publishing business on my own terms. I don’t follow Leo’s ways completely (I do, for example, run sales on my books, and I think social media share buttons can be useful), but when he talks about don’t focus on stats, focus on helping people, or about doing what feels right, he’s speaking my language.

Just so you know, Leo won’t mind that I’ve published his post here. Leo’s work is uncopyrighted (see #6 below), and he’s fine with others sharing his work.

Enjoy.

How I Conduct My Business

By Leo Babauta

I started my own business at a late age — by the time I made Zen Habits into a business in 2007, I was in my mid-30s and had toiled through various jobs for 17 years.

So when I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing (and still don’t, but less so now). I tried everything to make money, to make my site more popular (which I thought was important). Some of it worked, some didn’t. Some made me feel bad about myself. Some things readers reacted badly to, and others they loved.

Through this trial and error, I learned some principles that work for me. I don’t share them here to show that I’m superior to anyone, but to show an example of what might work for you. To show that doing things that feel right can make a business succeed.

Here’s how I conduct my business.

  1. Readers first. This is my No. 1 rule, and it has served me extremely well. When I have a question (“should I promote X or not?”) the answer is always, “What would my readers want? What would help them most?” When the choice is between making some extra money or my readers’ interest, the choice is obvious. There is no choice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed up being part of a mega-sale or affiliate marketing campaign that would have earned me $50K (and sometimes much more) in a day or two if I’d decided to participate. I’ve walked away from at least $1M because it would have put profits before my readers. And I think my readers trust me more because of this (see next item).
  2. Trust is everything. The most valuable assets I have are my readers’ trust and attention. And the attention will go really fast if they stop trusting me. Everything else in this list is based around these first two principles. When you start doing affiliate marketing, even if you think it would help the reader, if it would make them question your motives (is he trying to help me or make some money here?), it erodes their trust, a little at a time. That’s not worth the money.
  3. Make money by helping. I put out products and courses that I think will really help people, and that’s how I make money. This works really well for me. People are happy because their lives are better, and I’m happy because the revenue I make is entirely coming from making people’s lives better. We both win, our lives are all enriched. This is not the case from advertising (see next item).
  4. No ads, affiliate marketing. These are both the same, really. When you market someone else’s product as an affiliate, it’s just a hidden form of advertising. I should note that I had ads and did affiliate marketing for a couple years before giving it up. Why’d I give it up? Well, I realized (through experimentation) that the return on this kind of business model is very bad. You get very little revenue, and erode trust. That’s a bad formula for making money. When you sell an ad, what you’re really selling is your readers’ attention and trust — they trust you to put something important in front of their attention, and you capitalize on that. Of course, most readers learn not to trust the ads, and try to skip them, and put up with them because they want the good content (or service) you’re giving them. So they no longer trust you as much, but put up with your revenue tactics. This sucks. Who wants their customers to put up with anything? Why not delight them with how you make money? Why not enrich them? Now, can everyone do this? Possibly not, but I wouldn’t reject the idea without giving it a genuine shot.
  5. Just the text – no social media buttons, popups, dropdowns, or anything else that annoys or distracts. This goes back to trust — people come to my site to read something that will add value to their lives. Not to be pushed to share something on social media, or like something, or subscribe to my email newsletter. Yes, I have a thing at the bottom to subscribe, but it’s not pushy, and I don’t promise any gimmicky downloads. When your site has a popup or dropdown that asks people to subscribe, it’s annoying. I’m sorry to be blunt but I’m speaking as a reader now — I will never go back to a site that does that. Which means I don’t read a lot of my friends’ sites because they do this. Give the readers what they want, and nothing else, and you won’t have to ask them to subscribe or share. They’ll do it on their own, and this is the kind of share and subscriber you want.
  6. Uncopyright. My site has been uncopryrighted since January 2008 (there weren’t any other sites doing this at the time), and in the last 5+ years, uncopyright has not only not hurt my business, I strongly believe it’s helped tremendously. Why? Because it helps people share and spread my work much more easily. If someone wants to use an article of mine, they don’t have to go through the hassle of trying to contact me and ask permission — they just use it. This has caused people to use my work in books, magazines, blogs, newsletters, classroom materials, art, conferences and more. This is amazing. In addition, uncopyright promotes the idea of sharing, and when you share with people, they tend to trust you more. Sharing builds trust.
  7. No sales. I’ve seen many people do three-day sales of their products (or something similar), but I’ve never done one of these (that I can recall). Why not? Because it makes no sense to the reader (remember, readers first). Tell me the reader: why are you lowering the price of your product for three days? Why only those three days? If you can lower the price for those days, why not the other days? Is it to make more money from me (manipulate me into buying the book)? Is the price too high on the other days? What if I already bought the book at the higher price — was I ripped off? These are questions the reader has no answers to, and no matter how much you try to justify the reasons of the sale, it doesn’t make sense. Either set the price at the higher price point (because you think it’s worth it), or set it at the lower price point (because you want to get it into the hands of more people).
  8. Admit mistakes. It might sound like I’m pretending to be perfect at what I do, but the truth is I’m winging it. I’m making it up as a I go along, in hopes that I won’t screw it up, and constant fear that I am badly messing up. I have more trust in this process (and in my readers) now that I’ve been doing it for seven years and nothing has fallen apart, but I have made many mistakes along the way. I’ve been overly promotional, I’ve done affiliate marketing (just a couple of times), I had advertising, I asked people to share my work, I asked for votes. Those were mistakes, but I learned from them and try my best not to repeat them. Recently, in my Sea Change Program, I removed old habit modules from 2013 (I felt they were outdated), and my members were upset. I fixed the mistake and put the modules back. People don’t expect you to be perfect — they do expect you to try your best to fix mistakes when you make them. I admit my mistakes, and try to rectify them and do better. People trust me more because of it, I think.
  9. Don’t front. I don’t pretend I’m more than I am. I think there’s a tendency in the online world to overrepresent yourself — put yourself off as an expert or the world’s leading whateverthehell. But I’m not the world’s leading anything. I am just a guy who has a wife and six kids, who has changed his life by making small habit changes, one at a time. A guy who has simplified his life and focused on being mindful. I’ve learned a lot from these experiences, and share them as much as I can here on Zen Habits. That’s all I am, and I don’t try to be more. When you only try to be yourself, you can’t fail.
  10. Forget about stats, focus on helping. In the early days, I was obsessed about site statistics. I would check my stats counter several times a day, look at where all the traffic was coming from, try to get my numbers up. Here’s the thing: you can’t do anything with those stats. If you’re getting traffic from Reddit or Twitter, you can’t do anything about that. All you can do, once you’ve seen the stats, is try to create great content. Try to help people. Try to add value. That’s what you’d do even if you had zero stats. The stats don’t change what you should do — though they might motivate you to do things you shouldn’t do to get the stats up, things that aren’t trustworthy. The stats just make you obsessive. About three years ago, I removed all stats trackers from my site, and now am freed from that worry. Now I focus on what really matters: helping people as best I can.
  11. Do what feels right. This is vague and isn’t very helpful at first, because in the beginning, you’re never really sure what’s “right”. There are lots of choices to make and it always seems smart to just do what other people are doing, what the experts tell you to do. Unfortunately, that’s often wrong. Everyone else does what everyone else does because that seems safer, and so they act out of fear of doing the wrong thing. In fact, safer is not the right thing. Doing the right thing is going to be against the mainstream. For example, when I gave up copyright, or let go of ads or social media buttons or affiliate marketing, or comments, those were all very scary things for me. It was against what everyone else at the time was doing. But in the end, I knew they were the right thing, because it was what was best for my readers. And it made me feel good about what I was doing. This is the compass you need to develop, to build trust with your readers, and with yourself. Feel good about what you’re doing, don’t act out of fear.

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You can follow Leo on Twitter, and don’t forget his fabulous website.