The other day, I hopped in a cab. The driver and I started chatting, as you do. She asked what I do for work. I told her that I’m a writer. Her eyes lit up.
“That’s so cool! My son wants to be an author.”
“Oh yeah? What does he like to write about?” I asked.
She explained that her son is 12 years old. He has declared that he will finish his first novel by his 13th birthday. It’s a story about twin siblings — a brother and a sister — with supernatural powers. He works on it every single day. Any chance he gets.
Recently, he got in trouble during science class because he was writing story ideas in his notebook instead of paying attention to the teacher.
Another time, a different teacher scolded him and said, “Kids don’t write books.” (Can you imagine?) But none of that has stopped him.
“We don’t have a computer at home,” his mom explained. “It broke a long time ago.” Totally dead. Won’t even turn on. Sizzled black screen. She’s saving money to buy a new one. But it hasn’t happened yet.
But for her son? That’s no problem. He goes to the school computer lab during lunch — and then again after school — and that’s when he types out his novel. Every day, he pushes himself to finish his homework as quickly as possible so that he can work on his novel. He’s been doing this for months.
We arrived at my apartment. I scribbled my contact info and a publishing resource on a scrap of paper and handed it to her. I said goodbye and told her, “You’re an amazing mom, and you’ve got an amazing son.”
I’ve been thinking about this kid ever since.
No computer? No problem. Unsupportive teachers? Not an issue. Tons of homework? No sweat. Already finished. This kid is unstoppable. I predict he’ll have a trilogy of books — and a movie deal — by the time he graduates from high school.
May we all pursue our dreams with the relentless, undaunted passion of this 12-year-old kid.
If we applied even one-quarter of his determination to our work, we’d all create miracles.
“Oh but my Internet connection is really slow.” “So-and-so hasn’t gotten back to me yet.” “My assistant is on vacation.” “My boss won’t let me.”
When those voices arise, when you feel like stalling, when the work feels too hard and overwhelming… remember that somewhere in Oregon, there’s a 12-year-old boy working his butt off at the junior high school computer lab. He’s figuring out how to move forward with his goals in spite of every obstacle.
You can make excuses or you can make yourself proud.
You can make excuses or you can make progress.
You can make excuses or you can make art.
Every day, it’s your choice.
I was teaching a writing class. Towards the end, someone asked:
“How can I get over my fear of people judging me? I’m nervous to publish my work because I don’t want to deal with mean emails, mean blog comments, and things like that. How can I get over this?”
That… is a good question. Because judgment is everywhere, all the time.
“I love his writing.” “Her voice annoys me.” “Wow, that was completely delicious.” “Blech. Too rich for my taste.”
We judge people’s style, voices, choices, and creative work. We do this instinctively. All day, every day, we have reactions to things. We form opinions about things. We filter things into categories. “I love it.” “No thanks.” “Awesome!” “Disgusting.” It’s how human beings operate.
I’ve been writing professionally for the last 10 years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during that timespan, it’s this:
People are going to judge my work.
They’re going to judge yours, too.
No matter what I say — and no matter how I say it — someone, somewhere, is going to be delighted, and someone, somewhere, is going to be upset.
It is not possible for me to create a “perfect piece of writing” that delights six billion people and upsets zero people.
There’s no getting around this fact. That’s just how writing / reading works.
— I got an email from someone who said: “I love that you include photos of yourself in your newsletter! It’s so fun to see the face behind the words.”
— I got an email from another person who said: “I don’t like that you put photos into your newsletter. It feels like vanity, and it’s diluting your message. I expected more from you. Unsubscribe me.”
— I got an email from someone who said: “Thank you for being open and transparent about your political beliefs. As a Muslim woman, I feel uneasy and vulnerable right now, and I really appreciated what you said.”
— I got an email from another person who said: “I really wish you wouldn’t talk about politics. What you said about the election… I just don’t think it’s right.”
Like I said.
It’s impossible to please everybody.
What feels “inspiring” to one person might feel like “vanity” to another. What feels “comforting” to one person might feel “inappropriate” to another. And on and on and on and on it goes.
I can’t control how people react to my work. All I can do is ask myself, “What is the message I want to share in this moment?” and “How can I share that message as clearly as possible?”
That’s all I can do. That’s all anybody can do.
Yes, occasionally, people will send bizarre, outraged emails to you at 2am in the morning. People will call you names. People will misinterpret you and misquote you. People do that. If you want to be a writer, artist, or entrepreneur — if you want to create anything in a public space — then enduring judgment and criticism is part of the package deal.
But not everybody will criticize you. Some people will love you. Some people will say, “Thank you. I needed to read that today,” and “The story you just told changed my life,” and “You inspired me to keep going.”
Those are the people you’ve got to stay focused on. Plug those people into your heart. Lock them into your mind. Hold on tight. Remember those people when you’re feeling discouraged. Imagine those people encircling you with appreciation. Create for them.
“Believe in yourself. There is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.”
–Christian D. Larson
There is something inside you that is stronger than even the harshest piece of criticism, stronger than the meanest blog comment, stronger than the hate-iest piece of hate mail. You have that strength inside of you.
You’re going to be judged, and…
You’re going to survive.
This is embarrassing for me to say, but I’ll just say it.
One time, I wanted to cancel a big speaking engagement because I thought I was “a little too chubby.” You know, maybe five extra pounds over my “usual” weight. I knew they’d be filming the event and I didn’t feel “ready” to appear on camera.
“Maybe next year… I’ll be ready.”
I caught myself thinking those words. I knew, in that moment, how completely ridiculous I was being. My mind was like a runaway train heading straight into body-shame-hell and I needed to jump off.
Intellectually, I know that I am allowed to step onstage, and that I deserve to be seen, whether I weigh 90 pounds or 900 pounds. It makes no fucking difference.
Intellectually, I know that I am creative, talented, beautiful in all the ways that matter, and that my stories matter, too.
I know all of those things. And also, I am a human being with human emotions, not a steel-plated confidence-machine. Sometimes, my thoughts go a little screwy. Sometimes, my brain whispers, “Have I reminded you lately that… you suck? Just wanted you to know.” It’s absolutely crazy how our brains can trick us, sneaking in with insidious thoughts at the most inconvenient moments. You know… like the night before you’re supposed to speak in front of four hundred people. Thanks a lot, brain!
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself:
Whenever I’m stepping up to a new challenge, my brain always tries to convince me to wait until “later.” My brain tries to convince me that I’m not “thin / fit / strong enough” yet, that I don’t have “enough time,” or that “next summer would be better.”
No. Next summer would not be better. Next summer will come along with its own set of rationalizations and excuses. The right time is right now.
I’m proud to say that I didn’t cancel that speaking gig. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I talked myself through that bleak, bizarre moment of body-loathing. I put on my favorite outfit. I got onstage and I told my story. The audience thundered into applause. I stepped offstage and I cried with relief. Afterwards, multiple people came up to me to say, “Thank you so much for saying what you said.” Privately, I thought to myself, “And to think… I almost canceled the whole thing. Thank God I didn’t.”
Whatever you’re about to “cancel” or “postpone” (I know there’s something) please don’t. Just don’t. Be brave and charge forward. Who cares if you’ve got a pimple? Who cares if your body doesn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model? Who cares if your Masters degree isn’t finished yet? Who cares if your website isn’t completely perfect yet?
If there’s a project that you want to complete — a project that’s going to touch people’s hearts, change people’s minds for the better, or help people feel stronger and less alone — then the world needs your project NOW.
Please don’t delete yourself.
Please don’t flake out.
Please don’t cancel.
Not for any reason, and especially not because of how you look, or how you think you’re supposed to look. Don’t let the mean voices inside your head win. Let love win. Let art win. Finish your project and stop the pattern of canceling on yourself.
Canceling is officially canceled.
Earlier this week, I got an email from someone who wanted to know:
“How can I find my purpose?”
This person feels lost and directionless.
She’s so tired of searching, wondering, and “not knowing.”
Yup. I’ve been there. I spent many years comparing myself to my parents (both very high achievers), to my older brother (a Grammy Award-nominated musician) and to my super-successful friends (who all seemed to have things “figured out”). I wanted to discover my purpose so badly. I would journal, walk, think, vent, meditate, ruminate, and stress about it. On multiple occasions, I literally burst into tears of frustration.
Then one day… I realized that you don’t “discover” your purpose. You don’t “uncover” it. You don’t “find” it. You just pick something and you do it.
Here’s what I mean:
1. Think about something that bothers you.
Maybe “online bullying” bothers you. Maybe “poorly designed websites” bother you. Maybe “animal cruelty” bothers you. Maybe “boring dinner parties” bother you. Maybe “seeing talented people stuck in the wrong type of career” bothers you. We’re all bothered by something. What irritates you? What makes you groan? What breaks your heart?
2. Ask yourself, “What’s a cool project that I could do to help ‘solve’ this issue that bothers me?”
Maybe you could do a fundraiser. Maybe you could write a book to change people’s hearts and minds. Maybe you could invent a new product. Maybe you could teach a “lunchtime class” for your colleagues at work. Maybe you could record a 10-episode podcast series. Maybe you could do a letter-writing campaign. Figure out a project that sounds interesting to you. Map it out. And then…
3. Promise yourself that you’ll complete this project, no matter what.
Completing this project is now… your purpose.
That’s it. Get bothered. Come up with a project. Work on completing that project. And then once you’ve completed that project, then ask yourself, “OK, what else?”
Living “purposefully” can be that simple.
“I can’t put that story on my blog. It would break my mother’s heart…”
“Nope, I can’t say that because it involves my ex-husband and he would flip out…”
“Yes, it’s an important story, but it involves my son, and I want to protect his privacy…”
Maybe similar thoughts have been running through your mind?
These are very common — and completely valid — concerns. Whether you’re a fledgling blogger or a bestselling author, most likely, you’ve grappled with this dilemma at least once.
Just this week, I encountered this dilemma with three different clients. They said to me:
“I have a story that I want to share. It’s a story that could potentially inspire a lot of people. But if I tell this story on my blog / in my book / in that magazine / onstage, then I might hurt or offend someone that I love. What should I do?”
This is a tricky pickle. Every situation is different and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But if you’re grappling with this situation, here are some things to consider…
– Not every story needs to be told publicly.
You’re allowed to decide which parts of your life to make public and which to keep private. Maybe you want to write a blog post about how you almost flunked out of college, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you want to write a memoir about how you found the strength to walk away from an abusive marriage, or maybe you don’t. You get to decide.
Just because people keep insisting, “Oh, you’ve GOT to tell that story!” doesn’t mean you have to. It’s your life. It’s your writing. It’s your body of work. You’re in charge.
That being said…
– The story that is the “hardest” for you to tell… is probably the story that will change people’s lives.
There’s one story that I tell almost every time I teach a writing class or a retreat. It’s a story about a mom who emailed me, out of the blue, to ask if I’d write to her teenage daughter to give her some encouragement, because her daughter was going through a rough time at school. It was an email that ended up changing my entire life.
Every time I tell this particular story, I cry. Every. Single. Time. It’s not an easy story for me to tell. It’s raw and it’s humbling. It’s a story about why it’s important to keep writing, keep making art, and keep doing your work, even if it seems like “nobody is paying attention.” Because you might be completely wrong about that. You might be impacting people in ways you don’t even know about. Without realizing it, you might be saving someone’s life.
After telling that story onstage for the first time, almost everyone in the room was crying along with me. People stayed afterwards to say, “Oh my God, I needed to hear that…” and “Thank you so much for saying that…” and “I can’t stop thinking about what you said.”
On that day, I realized that when you tell a personal story — especially a vulnerable, uncomfortable story — it breaks down the invisible barriers that divide us. Hearts open. Tears fall. Decisions get made. Stories = powerful magic.
If you decide that you’re going to tell a personal story in a public setting, remember…
– You can tell your story truthfully — without trashing other people in the process.
You can maintain dignity and compassion for the other people involved in your story. There’s always a way to do this — even if you’re talking about someone who completely broke your heart. Even if you’re talking about the worst thing that ever happened to you.
You don’t have to say, “One time, my idiot asshole ex-boyfriend Kevin once said to me…”
You can say, “One time, a man that I loved said to me…”
You can omit people’s names. You can omit specific dates. You can omit identifying details, like cities and business names.
You can keep the story focused on yourself by using phrases like “I felt…” “I reacted by…” rather than focusing on other people’s actions: “She fucked up…” “He ruined it…”
You can write from a compassionate, reflective place. You can forgive people — and you can express that forgiveness in your story: “I know my mom did the best that she could…” “He thought he was doing the right thing…” “He was in a great deal of pain, which explains his unthinkable actions…”
The Dalai Lama says:
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
And lastly, on that note…
– Always check your motivations before you hit SEND or PUBLISH.
Before you share a personal story in a public setting — online, on the page, onstage — ask yourself, “Why am I telling this story?”
Are you telling this story because you’re still very angry and you want to “shame” someone for what they did? (Maybe… wait a bit. Let your emotions simmer down. Don’t say something you’ll regret tomorrow morning when you wake up with an “overshare-hangover.”)
Are you telling this story because you have unresolved emotions that you need to vent and purge out of your body so that you can feel better? (Maybe save that for your private diary or your therapist’s office.)
Or, are you telling this story because you have a specific message that you want to share? A message of hope, a message of transformation, or a sentiment that might help someone in the audience to feel less afraid and less alone?
If that’s your motivation, then go for it. Click “Send.” Hit “Publish.” Step up to the mic. Tell your story with pride, because your motivations are in the right place. Your audience will feel your intention shining through — and they’ll be grateful you found the courage to say:
“So, this one time, this happened to me…”