Fearlessness is not Courage

Lessons from Matt D'Avella's Ground Up Show

Episode 94 - Success Doesn't Equal Happiness

The Ground Up Show is a compelling interview podcast which features creative people (filmmakers, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs) sharing the story of how they are accomplishing their dreams. Created and Hosted by Matt D'Avella (the documentary filmmaker who is best known for Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things), The Ground Up Show is insightful and inspiring. I listen every week and always manage to take three of four practical lessons from each episode. 

In Episode 94 of Matt D'Avella's Ground Up Show, Matt has a conversation with Alex Banayan, author of The Third Door, a book of interviews with successful people on how they launched their careers.

Banayan is somewhat of a prodigy. He began his quest to meet high-profile business leaders at only eighteen-years old and scored sit-downs with people like Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, Steven Spielberg, and dozens more.

The name The Third Door is a reference to what Banayan says he learned is the true path to success, the key to breaking through all barriers to achieving big things in life. He explains the concept this way: "It doesn't matter if it was Maya Angelou for poetry, or Jane Goodall for science, or Quincy Jones. Every single person I interviewed treated life and business and success the exact same way. The analogy that came to me - because I was twenty-one at the time - was that it was sort of like getting into a nightclub."

In a nightclub, Banayan says, "There are always three ways in. There's the first door, the main entrance, where the line curves around the block, where ninety-nine percent of the people wait in line hoping to get in... The second door is the VIP entrance, where the billionaires and celebrities go through... School and society have this way of making us feel like those are the only two ways in; you either wait your turn, or you're born into it. But what I've learned is that there's always, always a third door. It's the entrance where you jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open a window, go through the kitchen - there's always a way in... It's a mindset. It's a way of viewing your problems. When you have a third-door mindset, really what it gives you is a sense of possibility that there's always a way."

Success doesn't automatically lead to happiness

The conversation delves into the subject of how we define success. Banayan recalls meeting with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers. "Fifteen minutes before the interview, I get a phone call from one of my best friends... He's like, Woz is great, but he peaked twenty years ago... Try to find out why he wasn't as successful as Steve Jobs.'"

During the interview, his friend's question on his mind, Banayan digs into Wozniak's personal belief about success. Wozniak, he learned, rejected Western society's prescription for success. "He told himself when he was young 'What would I truly want to do that would make me happy?' He decided it was two things. One, to make things with his bare hands that uses engineering that changes the world. And two, to have fun while doing it." And Wozniak did seem happy. "Within ten minutes, it's undeniable that Steve Wozniak is the happiest person I've ever met. it doesn't matter if he's talking about his dog, or his cars, or his wife. Everything he talks about, he has this exuberant joy."

Still, Banayan's friend's question persisted. Did Wozniak compare himself to Jobs in terms of success? Woz explained that his relationship with Steve Jobs was fortuitous and powerful, but Jobs had a material-success focus. Banayan gave the example of when employees at the nascent Apple Computer wanted shares in the company just before the company's IPO. Jobs flatly refused. "Wozniak did the only thing he could think of. He gave some of his personal shares to these early employees. To him, they were like family. And on the day of the IPO, they all became millionaires." When asked what leadership he role he wanted in the ever-growing business (and he was assured he could pick any), Wozniak asked that his role be capped at Engineer.

"Who's to say Steve Jobs was more successful?"

So should Wozniak be seen as successful in comparison to Jobs? Banayan said his takeaway from the interview was that Wozniak's pattern of decision making, which favored personal satisfaction and happiness over the material-wealth-at-all-costs dream we're spoon fed to desire, gave him a different form of success than his more-famous business partner. "I'm sitting back at this Chinese restaurant with Wozniak. He's sitting back on his chair. He's laughing. He's smiling... And again, the question my friend asks me pops into my head. And the only thing I can think is, who's to say Steve Jobs was more successful?"

The danger of over-persistence

During the podcast, Banayan said when he started out on his mission to interview the world's most successful business people, that Warren Buffet was his dream interview. He attacked the goal of meeting Buffet the way he believed he should; with relentless persistence, writing, emailing and calling Buffet's secretary repeatedly. "Every week, I would send him a new letter. And every Wednesday, I would call his assistant. After three months of being rejected, it really hurts. By month six, you're coughing up blood. I'm twenty years old at the time too, so my sense of identity is completely attached to this project and this mission. By month eight, I'm completely dejected."

In the meantime, he managed to secure an interview with Buffet ally Bill Gates. "The interview with Bill Gates went so well that at the end, Gates' office said 'Let us know how we can help.' I'm like, Well, you know, I could use some help with Warren Buffet." They told him it was an easy ask, that Gates and Buffet were best friends. But, "I get an email a couple of weeks later saying 'Please, no more messages to Warren's office.'"

"You can pound on a door so many times, that instead of knocking it down, they call the police on you."

Banayan says he learned a lesson that is not taught enough. "Every business book talks about the value of persistence. But no business book warns you about the dangers of over-persistence, where you can pound on a door so many times, that instead of knocking it down, they call the police on you. I had dug myself in such a deep hole, even Bill Gates couldn't pull me out."

The difference between courage and fearlessness

The conversation moves on to the subject of hustle culture, the pervasive idea that the winners in life are the ones who have outworked everyone else. Banayan shares a perspective on the root of this belief and challenges it.

"Many times when people try to out-grind or out-hustle, it comes from (our) original fear. Thich Nat Hanh, the really famous Zen monk, talks about original fear... The second you come out of the womb is the first time you ever experience fear, the fear of death... You were in this womb where everything was taken care of for you. You had this umbilical cord, you have the embryonic sack. You were, in many ways, in heaven... All of a sudden you're in a room with bright light. You have to start breathing. There's liquid in your throat, choking you. You come into this world choking and about to die... That's original fear; trying not to die."

"Fearlessness is jumping off a cliff and not thinking about it... Courage... is acknowledging your fears... and then deciding you care so much about it, you're still going to take one thoughtful step forward anyway."

That original fear, Banayan says, manifests itself throughout life; as fear of death in the form of failure, or fear of death in the form of living a life that didn't matter. "When I started working on the book, when I was eighteen, I was completely consumed by fear. So naturally, one of my biggest questions was how did all these other people, who achieved these monumental things, relate to their fear? I just assumed that Bill Gates or Elon Musk had to be fearless, or else how else would they do what they did?"

Banayan says he was surprised about the role of fear in his interview subject's lives. "Not only were these people scared, they were completely terrified... It wasn't fearlessness they achieved. It was courage. And while it sounds similar, the difference is critical... Fearlessness is jumping off a cliff and not thinking about it. That's idiotic. Courage, on the other hand, is acknowledging your fears, analyzing the consequences, and then deciding you care so much about it, you're still going to take one thoughtful step forward anyway."

Subscribe to The Ground Up Show on YouTube or Apple Podcasts. Matt D'Avella has a Patreon page if you want to support him directly as well.


10 Ways to Procrastinate Your Way to Writing Success

The author looking writerly (but streaming a UFC fight on YouTube for inspiration instead)

A day in the life of a real writer

It's one of those mornings. You have an assignment due or you're one chapter away from finishing the draft of a novel you're working on. Your goals for the day are set. You need to focus. You need to get to work. You need to hammer the words out on the forge of your creativity, polish them to a reflective luster, and send them into the world to be received with love and joy possibl some way to make money.

I've looked over the shoulders of hundreds, maybe even thousands of writers and from what I've observed (don't ask me how because I will simply refer you to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution). I watched the sweat fizzle on their brows, the blood tear in their eyes, and the words flow onto pages and screens. I've felt their joy as complicated yet beautiful language wove its way into existence from their amazing creative brains.

After exhausting analysis of people who classify themselves as writers, I am convinced that anyone can be. A. Writer. Do you want to be a writer? It's pretty easy. Just say "I Am A Writer" out loud, and you're on your way. All that's left (based on the common set of behaviors of those of us who call ourselves writers) is to make a plan to write something, then sit down every once in a while with the intention to write and follow these simple daily steps and you'll be as much of a writer as any of us.

Write anything other than your current project - If, when you sit down to write at your appointed time (be that 5 am or the 15-minute sliver of time while you wait at the gate for your flight to Madison, Wisconsin for a one hour meeting that will consume two days of travel time) you have energy, enthusiasm, and creativity available for the immediate Work In Progress (WIP), you're missing the opportunity to get some unrelated writing done. Write in your journal instead. Write a blog post and send it onto the Internet for your reader to praise you over. Write an outline for a new project that is even more inspiring than the one you should be working on, so you can abandon the WIP rather than face the danger of it actually being finished and having to go out into the world for judgment day.

No self-ordained writer worth the bottled ink in their fountain pen writes if there are chores to do.

Clean something. Be sure your house is clean before you write. No self-ordained writer worth the bottled ink they use in their fountain pen writes if there are chores to do, especially chores they would not otherwise get to. Surely you can find a trash can that needs a new liner? Remember that shelf-liner you bought seventeen months ago, the one that's sitting propped in the corner of the garage like a bow staff waiting to be called upon for battle against marauding invaders? As long as it sits there, you shouldn't sit at your desk. As long as anything exists in your home that belongs at Goodwill, no writer would possibly do their work.

Study writing - One way that many writer's use their writing time is to read books about writing. or watch videos about writing. Or get together in groups to give and receive praise or condemnation of other's writing. This is important mental work and can't be understated. Real writers harden themselves for the future they hope will come through the time-tested methodologies of comparison, overconsumption, and projection of your fears onto an unlikely prospective future.

Stephen King at his writing desk (sometime in the 80's)

Organize your writing space - No writer worth the price of their annual Grammarly subscription would ever sit down to work unless their writing space was the perfect and ideal version of itself. Having the perfect environment to write is a must for writers, and there are strict standards you must follow to be a real writer. You need either an elegant roll-top desk in a roomy home office under a southern-facing window, or an L-shaped desk crammed into a disorganized dark nook piled high with papers and books you plan on reading. The only other acceptable writing desk configuration for the real writer is the nomad setup; a plush lounge chair in a bustling and overpriced urban coffee shop, your Apple MacBook Pro open on your lap, a pair of Beats over-ear noise-canceling Headphones draped casually over your head, a Rhodia notebook and LAMY Studio fountain pen tucked into the Timbuk2 Spire Laptop nestled between your feet.

Check your phone - Every social-media account must be checked repeatedly. You might have missed something.

Watch Season Six of Project Runway - Substitute any show on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vudu, CBS All-Access, or the six hundred seventy-nine other video subscription services you stream from for my specific recommendation (although season six of Project Runway is worth the binge). Based on the behavioral observations of writers at work, these shows provide numerous benefits to the creative process. For maximum benefit, they must be absorbed in their entirety, in as few sittings as possible (preferably one sitting). A real writer knows that in order for their work to remain current and relevant, it is impossible to stay relevant without consuming as much popular streaming television as possible.

Take a day trip - Life is short. Experiences are more valuable than things. Travel is the greatest teacher. Before you sit down to write and let life pass you by, there are certain things that you must get out of the way. Writers know not to lock themselves into the horror and drudgery or their work until they have shaken free of their mental lists of things they want to see and do "one day." Didn't someone once tell you that the tacos at that truck in that farming community forty miles up the highway were life changing? Writers know that commitment to the craft means a commitment to living. You can only write what you know. And if you don't really know those tacos are transcendental, then action must be taken before real writing can be done.

Take a nap - From the National Sleep Foundation: "As a nation, the United States appears to be becoming more and more sleep deprived... While naps do not necessarily make up for inadequate or poor quality nighttime sleep, a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness, and performance. Nappers are in good company: Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and George W. Bush are known to have valued an afternoon nap." Who can argue with that? Nap approved!

Stock up on supplies - The worst thing that can happen to a writer, based on my observations of their behavior, is to run out of supplies half way through a writing session. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to start the flow of words onto a screen or page. Bringing the process to a halt mid-session could cause a writer valuable lost production. It could be days, weeks, even months before they tap the vein of inspiration again. When the rare urge to write overwhelms these delicate artists, be sure, make absolutely sure, there is nothing that can them off Mother Creativity's teat. I don't just mean make sure there are empty pages ready to fill and ink for the pen, but be sure the charger for the laptop is plugged in, coffee beans await the grinder, the phone is fully charged, and enough snacks to satisfy Justin Bieber's green-room contract rider are in arms reach. Oh, and while we're at it, do you need to replace any worn socks? Are you out of shampoo? Did you remember to put candles under the sink in case there's a power outage? Don't think too much about it. When you get the urge to write, just go to the store, you'll find something you need.

Real writers know that the best time to start new, life-changing health and wellness programs is right before you need to get cracking on a writing project.

Finally, start a work-out program - You know how you're always saying you really want to adopt a regular exercise routine? Do you need to lose a few pounds? Do you want to tighten up for a class reunion, or flatten the belly for a wedding you may or may not be going to in a couple of months? Real writers know that the best time to start new, life-changing health and wellness programs is right before you need to get cracking on a writing project you've had floating around for a while.

Bonus, 11th suggestion - Do none of the first ten things - In all my observations of writers at work, there is the occasional anomaly; the writer who actually sits down and gets the work done every day. You can spot them easily. They are the writers who parade their finished work -- their published books, their successful screenplays, their bylines in magazines and newspapers -- gleefully, like the parents of a needy third grader displays their participation trophies in the living room like their kid won the Nobel peace prize. Honestly, you have nothing to learn from these people. They are boring. They routinely show up at their desks and write as if they are punching a clock at a book-making factory. They keep regular hours. They accomplish specific word-count goals. They complete projects on time. They don't even wait for inspiration (some even claim that inspiration is something you turn on inside yourself by writing, not by waiting to smell it like the perfume left in a room after someone wearing it has left).

I hope you found this writing self-help post useful. If I missed any insight into how real writer's work that those of us who aspire to write full time can learn from, please share it in the comments section below. And get back to work (if, of course, there's not something else you'd rather do first).

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Lessons from Matt D’Avella’s Ground Up Show

Episode 92 - Slow Fashion, with Dani Nagel

The Ground Up Show is a compelling interview podcast which features creative people (filmmakers, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs) sharing the story of how they are accomplishing their dreams. Created and Hosted by Matt D'Avella (the documentary filmmaker who is best known for Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things), The Ground Up Show is insightful and inspiring. I listen every week and always manage to take three of four practical lessons from each episode

In episode 92 of The Ground Up Show podcast, host and creator Matt D'Avella interviews Dani Nagel, founder of fashion brand Dazey L.A. Dazey is what Nagel calls slow fashion; the counterpoint to the high-volume, low-quality, disposable-clothing approach of the fast-fashion industry.
Nagel makes clothing only on demand, once it's ordered, with minimal inventory. She uses locally-sourced materials and manufacturing. And her designs speak to theme's she's passionate about (her current collection contains messaging around sisterhood and unity and the roles those themes play within feminism, for example).

Nagel came to the slow-fashion movement from within the fast-fashion industry. As a tee-shirt designer at Macy's, she says "I just remember walking out to the warehouse and seeing like 5,000 units of this tee shirt design I did. (It) was just a dumb design. And I was like, where is all this all gonna go?" She says she realized that these shirts were never meant to last, that she was contributing to what she says is the second-most polluting industry in the world (behind fossil-duels). She then discovered the documentary True Cost, which highlights the toxic downside to fast fashion.

Nagel's fascinating Ground Up story starts with a fashion degree, then takes off when she's fired from a job for working freelance gigs off the clock against company policy. Here are my main takeaways from the episode:

Sometimes we leap, sometimes we're pushed

Nagel told Matt that after she earned her fashion degree, rather than pursuing her own apparel business right away, she took jobs in the fast-fashion industry. "Every young fashion designer wants to have their own clothing line," she says. "It's not realistic though. So I put that dream in the back of my mind and got an internship with a tee-shirt company. It had never dawned on me that I could do art and design and fashion fused into one thing. After that internship, I decided I was going to be a tee-shirt designer."

The internship led to a job, based in San Diego. The job led to others. "I got a job with Macy's in L.A. Then I got a job at Urban Outfitters. I was a job hopper." But a job hopper with a solid work ethic. "I put my head down and worked. I was a design machine. I would sit there, all day, and pop out designs."

With the dream of her own line still buried in the back of her mind, she landed at Hot Topic, "Which had an awesome company environment. They treated their employees like family." That comfort led to complacency though. And the dream started to surface. "It was so cushy and nice (at Hot Topic) that I got bored. I started listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship. I started doing some secret freelance work on the clock. I started posting my work online."

The challenge she was about to encounter was that as a corporate designer, her employer owned the rights to all her work output. "They saw me posting stuff on Instagram and that was it. I was fired."

With a head full of entrepreneurship content, Nagel launched into freelancing. She had to admit failure just a few months later and went back to designing for someone else.

Prepare for what you can, accept what you can't

Nagel said she failed at her first attempt to build a freelance business because "I had no game plan. I just thought I was going to make it work. I was listening to these podcasts, to these entrepreneurs doing amazing things, and I ran out of the gate believing I was going to do this, that I'm awesome." Besides no game plan, Nagel says she also suffered because "I was so used to that corporate paycheck that I couldn't handle the stress in between freelance gigs."

She went to work for a startup, a move she credits as vital to her development. "I was able to do things I was not able to at the corporate company." She gained experience in marketing, social media, photography. "Working with a startup is an awesome way to dip your toe in and get that experience that you don't get with your (limited corporate) job."

As well as gaining valuable work experience to apply to her own business, Nagel used the time at the startup to ready herself for the challenges she knew she'd encounter when she next took the entrepreneurial leap. Risk-averse and conservative financially by nature, she had been saving money for some time. "I was able to save up money and have a freelance plan," she says. "Saving up gave me the freedom to start my own business. And building up a freelance base kept me afloat for the first six months of my brand. That was huge."

She also had a much better perspective of what could happen if she tried again, and still fell short of her goal. "People get so in their head imaging the worst-case scenario. Sometimes you have to sit down and be like, really, what is that worst-case scenario? And is it really that bad?" For Nagel, she knew she would have to go back to designing for a bigger company. "Is getting a job again that bad? I had a decent resume. It was a little embarrassing when I got fired, failed at freelancing, and had to get a job again. But I was fine."

Build the team that expands your possibilities

Nagel left the startup to launch Dazey L.A. in 2016. From there, her Ground Up lessons are about the journey of building and growing a sustainable creative business. The first was to invest more than just money into her business.

Nagel said at first, her business was the combination of all her passions in one. She was the designer, sourced the materials, took the photographs, built the marketing, and posted all social media. It was a grind at times, but she was doing all the things she loved. "I wanted to do it all. And I had the energy to do it all. I was just so excited." But, she says, she had set an unsustainable pace. "I was just working too damn hard." She needed help.

"It took me a while to hire my first employee," she admits. "Once I finally crossed that threshold and did it, I realized it opened up so much more time for me to make more money and spend time on marketing the brand."

Hiring allowed Nagel to focus on the things she was best at, the things that could grow her company and today, her small team handles the day-to-day operations. "I know what I'm good at. I'm good at creativity. I'm good at branding and marketing. I'm bad at logistics. I'm bad at software. So I found people who are good at that stuff, people who are way more organized and almost keep me on top of things. They give me the freedom to focus on being creative and focusing on social media and Instagram."

Let go of anything not moving you closer to your goals

As well as investing in building a team, Nagel's Ground Up journey led her to understand that to be successful, you have to be thoughtful about how you direct your company's energy and resources. Nagel now regularly takes stock of everything the company is doing and make smart decisions about what to let go of.

One example: "We were focusing on wholesale," she says. "We realized that wholesale was a fraction of the money we were making compared to direct-to-consumer sales and (sales from) our ambassador program, yet we were putting the same amount of effort into it. So we decided to put (wholesale) on the backburner and focus on the things that made us more money."

Another example was the company blog. "As much as I loved to blog about things, and share images and thoughts, it just wasn't getting the views that were worth the effort that I was putting into it. My time was becoming increasingly valuable." So instead of continuing to invest her time and energy into creating blog content, she found someone to take that task on.

Dazey L.A. is currently hard at work on their next collection (around themes of authenticity and vulnerability). Nagel also recently co-founded the female co-working space Biz Babez in downtown L.A.

Subscribe to The Ground Up Show on YouTube or Apple Podcasts. Matt also has a Patreon page if you want to support him directly as well.


Design your ideal work habit

Can we program our brains like a computer to do the work that will get us to our dreams?

Create a repeatable daily process to get your most important work done

What were you put on this earth to do? What is your purpose? What do you want to accomplish with your precious, albeit short, life? And are you doing the work you know you need to do every day to realize your dream?

If it only took intelligence or raw talent to achieve our goals, success would be so much easier. But because (except for the extremely fortunate) success requires that we apply ourselves and work really hard for our dreams, they seem out of reach at times.

My biggest challenge is that even though I know what I need to do every day to pursue my lifetime goals (write, publish, and promote my work), I battle with myself to get my work done. I wake every day with the intention to write, with a long list of ideas and even professional writing commitments, then I open my phone, check email, look at what's new on YouTube or Netflix and before I know it, my intention is buried under a day's worth of distractions. Without a process to get the necessary work done every day, reaching my goals is taking a very long time.

When I avoid those distractions and lean into a block of writing time, I am actually productive. I use the Pomodoro method to work in twenty-five-minute bursts of intense focus. I can make 2,000 words of progress on my novel, stay well-ahead of my copywriting deadlines, even draft, polish, and post an entire blog post in one two or three-hour early-morning writing session. So long as I write before I do anything else that day.

I could blame the world for my lack of progress -- it is filled with distraction after all (damn you high-speed Internet access!). I could blame my family (we all need to eat and have that pesky roof over our heads after all). I could blame my job (why do they need actual results for the money they invest in me?). But none of those things are the reasons I haven't achieved my writing goals.

No one is going to hand your dream to you

No one else in the world cares if we accomplish my personal goals. It affects no one. At the end of time, what we chose to accomplish or not accomplish with my flicker of our lifetimes won't make a difference to how it all ends. I alone need to accomplish what I feel I am on this earth to accomplish. I need to do it because what I am asking to happen only affects my life's experience.

It comes back to intention. I talk a good game, but unless I follow up my intention with actual work, I will always fall short of my ambitions. Successful people apply their talents and skills in clear, repeatable, and consistent ways. Accomplished people have a process to follow so they get things done. They are disciplined. They show up and do their work. They learn and iterate They stay their course.

Since intention is not enough for me to avoid my own productivity traps, I need to create a system, a process to make sure that I do the right things for myself every day. But how? How do you do create a work process that overcomes your lazy habits and programming?

This tattoo on my forearm is a reminder to work every day toward my writing dreams.

The epiphany for me was to think of my mind as a computer. In computing, algorithms (software code) are used to make computers perform all kinds of repeatable tasks for us. The computer is not smart or talented or focused, it is simply a machine executing the tasks programmed into it. Computers aren't subject to self-doubt and distraction, they just perform the commands given them. What I wanted for myself was a computer-style program I could run in my brain every day, an algorithm, a set of instructions to execute in a repeatable loop that led to a specific result (writing work output).

Re-writing your brain's programming to get shit done

To create the most-efficient work process, we first have to know ourselves. What time of day works best for us (are you mentally freshest in the morning or does your creativity flow best after everyone else is asleep)? How much time do we need to make progress (Can you spare an hour? Two? Five? What feels like the right amount of time you should spend on your work each day?) What environment suits you best (solitude and silence in the perfect home office, or the background bustle of a coffee shop).

We also need to know how we work. Are you task-oriented (make plans and lists and derive satisfaction from checking off tasks)? Are you goal motivated (thrive when there's a tangible reward at the end of the work)? Are you social (work best within a collaboration with lots of feedback) or introverted (need a cone of silence around you to work)? We need to design our process around our best flow. For me, it's tasks. I am most at peace when I get to check off a big list of things I needed to get done. I also enjoy the process of planning; set a goal, create a strategy for accomplishing the goal, create the tactical plan (tasks) to achieve the goal.

The final piece of the puzzle is to anticipate the potential barriers there are to the sustainability of your program and prepare in advance to manage them. For me, I needed to thwart what Steven Pressfield in The War of Art calls The Resistance; the inner voice that is constantly pulling us away from our creative work. I wanted a process that was so pre-planned, so clear a set of clear instruction, that it required me only to sit down at a certain time and follow it without overthinking. I want a recipe to follow, a formula, a paint-by-numbers approach to writing.

With my intention set, the best working time of day established, an understanding that I need task orientation, a calculation of the hours I can dedicate to writing, and an acceptance that the Pomodoro method is an ideal focus method for me, I wrote the following algorithm to reprogram my brain:

<PRIME - BEFORE BED> - Before I go to bed at night, I review my master writing task list (a OneNote page with lists of all my writing ideas). This master writing list contains every writing idea I have. Whenever I have a new writing idea, I add it to this list. They include copywriting and marketing assignments I need to deliver to clients, blog post ideas, article ideas for a personal project I'm developing, as well as fiction projects. The list could contain first-draft writing, editing, polishing, publishing tasks, any kind of writing work that leads to finished writing projects. Each night I set a specific intention for the next day to focus on five 'on deck' priority projects, sorted in order. Before I go to bed, I make sure I know exactly what writing I'll be doing in the morning, even typing up rough, bullet-point outlines. Planning the night before takes away all thinking in the morning. All I have to do is show up, put my fingers on the keyboard, set my timer, and write what the list says is next.

<START = WAKE UP> - This is the logical first step in my work block. I set Wake Up as the first step in the routine so that when I go to bed the night before, I know that when I wake up, I am immediately executing the writing algorithm. If I don't start at wake up, then I might allow myself to get pulled into distraction.

<MAKE THE BED> - I make my bed when I get up in the morning to declare to my mind that sleep time is over. It is a psychological act. I am also immediately priming myself by checking off a task that the time to complete tasks has begun.

<SHOWER and DRESS> - Again, this is psychological. I could wait to shower and dress until after the writing session is done, but by taking care of it first, I approach the writing desk ready for the rest of day. It becomes one less thing I have to stress over. Showering before working also gives me a few extra minutes to come fully awake, more time for my brain to prime for what's coming. And by avoiding any media, I give my mind fifteen minutes to ponder what I already know (because I prepared the night before) are the first writing assignments for the day.

<COFFEE> - I take a couple of minutes to make coffee before I sit down to the computer. Ritual? Need for caffeine? I don't even know at this point. All I know is that I like coffee, I draw satisfaction from the rhythm, and routine of making it, and by doing it before I start writing, I don't break my writing momentum by doing it halfway through my writing session.

<WRITING LOOP> - I use the Pomodoro method to focus when it's time to work. I've written about this before, but essentially the Pomodoro method is a system for removing all distractions. You set a timer for twenty-five minutes, work with complete focus on one task until the timer goes off, take a five-minute break, then start the timer for another Pomodoro. My first Pomodoro always starts with a handwritten page in my notebook/journal (about whatever is on my mind). For me, this opens the creative flow. I then switch straight to the first task on the 'on deck' writing list. I do five pomodoros in an unbroken block, working only on tasks from the master writing list. During the five-minute breaks, I get up and move around; let my mind work on the writing and let the blood in my body flow. I reward myself with five lovely marks in my notebook to record the session. And I get to check off any completed projects on the master writing task; both blissful, satisfying feelings.

<END SESSION> - I finish my writing algorithm with five minutes of filtering the email in my inbox. Checking and filtering email before I leave the house for work lets me commute without email stress. If I didn't have a plan to get to it, email would be on my mind all morning. I'll wonder if there is an important message waiting that must be taken care of right away (there ever is, but until I know for sure, the possibility creates anxiety)? By knowing that I have a specific time to check email before I move on to anything else for the day, I hold off that anxiety. My mind is at ease simply because I know I am going to get to it.

The whole routine takes me three hours from the moment I roll out of bed to the moment I walk out the door for work. That means I need to get up at 5:30 to leave the house at 8:30, which is not ideal for a non-morning person like me, but by sticking to this routine, I have had the least stress and most productive writing month of my life.


The Writer’s Essential Toolbox

Stephen King at his writing desk (sometime in the 80's)

I love looking at photographs of famous writer's desks. Seeing the way another creative person works is pruriently fascinating. I can't be the only one. Websites dedicated to sharing famous writer's workspaces exist. Hashtags exist (#writersdesk). Kurt Vonnegut's wife Jill Krementz produced a book of photographs of writer's working spaces (the Writers Desk).

These images are like porn for a writer. Is Stephen King's desk cluttered or organized? Did Hemmingway write in pencil or typewriter? Does Dean Koontz use notecards to plot stories? It is so interesting to look at these images and try to glean some hint, some epiphany that can help my own journey as a writer.

But for all I absorb this kind of imagery, obsession over how other people write is just another way we put off getting to work ourselves. The truth is that I have long settled into my own way of working. Looking for the silver bullet to getting writing done in photographs of other writer's workspaces is just another form of procrastination. I have what I need; a simple set of tools that are essential to me sitting down and getting my writing work done every day. Yes, I have a desk (three actually; one at each day-job engagement I have and one half of the big kitchen table at home). But the desk does not determine the flow of my work. I prefer to be mobile. I write wherever my butt and my brain happen to be when it's time to get the writing done. My workspace is virtual. My workspace is this set of tools:

Good, old-fashioned pen and paper: The most basic tool in my kit is a notepad and pen. To be a writer (to communicate in the medium of language), we don't need anything more than this. Paper and a pencil. A typewriter and a clean sheet of copy paper. A notepad and a pen. I keep my version of these tools close by at all times because even though I am digitally organized, as a writer, capturing ideas and thoughts at the moment they occur is critical to my writing process. So long as you have a pen and some paper close by, you have the most essential tools a writer needs to get started on any project. Mainly because I thrive under the stability of routine and known things, I am a bit particular on which notepad and pen I use; soft-sided, medium-sized, lined notepads from an Italian company called Legami (because I just fucking love them) and a LAMY Studio fountain pen with a medium nib and blue/black ink.

Any old computer: You can't post an article on the Internet using a pad and paper or submit a handwritten manuscript to a publisher or client, so a computer is essential to writing. I use the Microsoft Surface Pro because it's light, it has cellular service built in (which gives me Internet access anywhere whether there is WiFi available or not) and has a strong enough battery that I can work 5-6 hours without recharging. You don't need something fancy though. The great thing about being a writer (compared to say, a photographer or graphic designer) is that we need very little computing power. I've written on an iPad, at a library desktop computer, on whatever company machine was assigned to me in my day jobs, even my smartphone. Anything from the cheapest used laptop to the best credit will buy you will work.

A word processor: We lived in blessed times. There are so many options for word-processing software, that there is the perfect option for everyone out there. It almost doesn't matter which one you choose. For my work, I use one of four.

  • Microsoft Word - I use MS Word for my professional writing (copywriting, marketing pieces, and blog posts for business clients). It's the most widely-used word processor in business, so I can supply finished work in Word to any client without the problem of them being able to access it.
  • Scrivener - Have you heard of Scrivener? (What? You haven't? And you call yourself a writer?) Don't worry, I hadn't heard of it either, even after years of pursuing writing. Scrivener is a stand-alone word-processor and writing-organization system that is perfect for long projects (like novels or non-fiction books). Whereas Word is organized as a single document for each written work, Scrivener is organized as folders containing individual written files that make up longer work (like chapters in a book). As well as all the word-processing functions a writer needs, Scrivener provides tools to create outlines, synopsizes, and manage research material (among other things). It even provides the ability to output work in a variety of formats (so you can output formatted files for printing or publishing on all the available platforms). There's more but I can't do it justice in this small space. Check out Scrivener for yourself if you're serious about writing in long form.
  • WordPress - I built my personal website and my project both using the free web-publishing platform from Its built-in editor is perfect for writing web posts. You can dynamically move blocks of text around to get the right flow, add images, videos, links, and every other element you need to make your work sing online. WordPress offers the ability to create and save drafts, to publish immediately, or schedule posts to go live at a specific future time. It manages versions. It's a powerful writing tool. I draft right into WordPress for content that is going to live on either website.
  • Google Docs - For personal journals or documents that I want to share, I use Google Docs instead of Word. It's free, works like a charm, allows you to create, edit, and share documents whether or not you have an Internet connection, or not. If you don't have access to any of the above and just need a word processor, I recommend Google Docs.
This is it - everything I need to do my writing.

Grammarly: When I started writing, just out of high school in the mid (ahem) 1980's, you spell checked and added diversity to your writing using a printed dictionary and thesaurus. Computer-based world processing, with spell check and grammar functions built in, saved us from that laborious task and made the printed reference all but obsolete. The spell check and grammar functions within Word (and other software tools) are robust and you don't need much more to put out clean copy, but I have recently adopted a tool called Grammarly and recommend it highly. Grammarly is a service you subscribe to that then plugs into your browser and word-processors like Microsoft Word which provides running guidance to help you perfect your written language skills. beyond basic spelling and grammar checking, Grammarly provides you with robust feedback on sentence structure and language-flow problems. You also get data on the kinds of mistakes you make repeatedly (words you use more often than needed, the fact that I miss that serial comma almost every time). Grammarly has been like getting critique-group or editorial feedback on my work as I write. While I don't follow every piece of advice the service gives up, but it informs my writing continuously and I feel my work is stronger after running it through Grammarly than before.

A camera: I know this is counter-intuitive, but every writer needs a basic camera. Why? I write short pieces for web publication on my own websites and to post on third-party publishing platforms like Medium and LinkedIn. Web articles need an image to draw the reader's attention. Sure, you can source images online (like the one at the top of this article), but to avoid rights and usage problems, you're better off using a picture you take yourself (like the one in the middle of this article). The good news is you probably already have the camera you need - your smartphone. Modern smartphone camera's take excellent pictures, plenty good enough for online publication. If you're writing for print, the images need to be of higher resolution. When I need something better, I have a fixed-lens Fuju X100T (the digital equivalent of the 35mm reporter's camera). I use GIMP and DarkTable, both free equivalents of Photoshop and Lightroom, for photo editing.

A process: The best tool I developed for my writing was a simple, repeatable process for getting my work done. I know this is outside of the realm of the what's-on-your-writing-desk nature of this article, but having a work process is just as essential to my writing as a laptop or the right software. We all struggle with getting our writing done. We procrastinate. We get busy with all the other aspects of life. It's hard to put your butt in your seat and fingers on the keyboard some days, but the only true way to progress as a writer is to write. You have to put down words, and put those words out into the world, to get better. I am old enough and wise enough to know where I am weak about writing. I am weak if I let myself get distracted before I work (when I check email, when I go to the office first, when I check in with the news). I am weak when I tell myself I'll write later, after I just do this one thing (or ten things) first. I am weak if I think I'll really, really focus on writing tomorrow. I am best and happiest when I write first thing in the morning, before I do anything else that day. I am strong when I use to the pomodoro method to focus. I am strong when I take a minute to start a writing session with a handwritten warm-up page in my notebook. I am strong when I already have a plan, a task list of writing that needs to be done. To take advantage of where I am strong, and to defend against where I am weak, I have developed an algorithm than I run every morning to get my writing done. I think of myself like a computer, a machine that just has to follow this programmed routine. All I have to do is show up to my writing space and follow the program. No thinking, no negotiation with myself, just show up and follow the instructions. The program works like magic. The writing gets done and I go off into the rest of the day with the sense of satisfaction that the most important thing i want to accomplish in life was done that day. So long as I execute this three-hour morning routine every day, I trust that time and intention will equal a great amount of progress in my writing.

Feedback: The last essential item in my minimalist writing toolbox is feedback. I identify myself as a writer, a human being who uses writing to communicate thoughts, concepts, knowledge, ideas, and stories to the world. I write just for myself occasionally, but my ambition is that my writing is to be read. It is meant to have an audience. Writing is, like Stephen King says, telepathic communication, transmissions of thought from one person to another. I put down thoughts from my mind. Someone reads them and inputs them into their mind. For writing to be effective, the original thought must transfer as comprehensivley as possible. The only way for a writer to know if their work is being received as intended is to hear back from the reader. What did they think of the message? Did they understand it? Did it lead them to wonder, to think, to be inspired? Or was it confusing or uninetresting? Feedback is the only way to develop as a writer.

That's it. Those are my writing essentials, my virtual version of a writer's desk. If I boiled my writing life down to the bare essentials, everything with a purpose and nothing unnecessary, these are the things I need to be a writer.

What about you? What's your desk? What tools are essential to your writing?