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Extraordinary Creative Outliers

I think all creative people are extraordinary. You’re extraordinary. I’m extraordinary too. We’ve been extraordinary all our lives and one day at the age of six or eleven or twenty-one or fifty-seven something remarkable happened and we discovered we were, and then a corner was turned.

But a separate breed of outlier creator is so extraordinary and so driven and capable of such incredible creative feats and leads such an extreme existence of sacrifice that we wonder what there is about them that inspires them so. What sustains them and equips them so perfectly to produce such exceptional work? Theirs isn’t the only path to creative achievements—most creators lead more moderate lives. But it’s a path extraordinary creative outliers often choose.

Creative outliers are so absorbed in facing challenges and solving creative problems that they have almost no interest in anything else. Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow—the premier American writer of the second half of the 20th century– said, “I have always put the requirements of what I was writing first—before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has been the case with me.” He was married five times.

Novelist Jane Smiley wrote, “Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy, there is still a part of me that says, ‘God! This is fascinating.’” Ernest Hemingway lived in poverty early in his career and sometimes stole food and said a writer’s perceptions are sharper when he’s “belly-empty, hollow hungry,” that “hunger is good discipline and you can ballerina-534356_640_copy2learn from it.” Before taking the literary world by storm late-blooming novelist/essayist Henry Miller lived in poverty too. He once said, “I have no money, no resources, no hope. I am the happiest man alive.” Emily Dickinson, the greatest American woman poet, author of 1,775 poems, said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry. Ballerinas—artistes of artistes–may practice until their muscles scream and their feet bleed.

We look at these creative outliers and we marvel and are impressed or appalled or shocked, and often ask ourselves “Could I live an unusual life like sunflower-395026_640that? Am I willing to sacrifice so much for my art and suffer so much and risk so much?  Is that possible for me? How much of my normal life am I willing to give up? If I sacrificed more could I be great too?” And ordinarily decide it isn’t possible at all and we’re not willing to sacrifice in that way, nor suffer, nor risk all that. We couldn’t because a life like theirs asks too much. We draw a line and dare not cross it.

All creative people are obsessed to some extent or another, from mildly to ferociously, so much so that when we obsessed-but-less-obsessed creators hear about these outlier creators we have no problems understanding them since they’re only different from us in degree.

What humans in their craft can accomplish extraordinary outlier creators are willing to push themselves upward toward.  They have a genius.  They’re self-absorbed. They’re determined. They’re completely taken by a way that’s too demanding for the ordinary run of women and men. But for a select few like these outliers their craft becomes a way of life, a journey, a goal, an inevitable struggle of someone rare who’s capable of achieving the impossible.

Creative outliers pour themselves heart and soul and muscle and blood into their work. They work and they work and they work repetitively, and think bird-226700_640about their art or their writing, acting, or dancing continually, and have a monumental amount of confidence. Any time they’re not working they’re making plans for improvement because they know no matter how good you are and what you’ve accomplished you can always be better.

The fundamental role of all creators without exception is to create—to produce works–and they do with a vengeance. Pablo Picasso produced 50,000 works—1,885 paintings ,1,228 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, thousands of prints, and tapestries and rugs.

There wasn’t a moment of his waking day all his career that Nobel Prize dramatist Eugene O’Neill wasn’t thinking about writing.  He produced 35 full-length plays and 17 one act plays and revolutionized American theater. Writing  long hours, English novelist Charles Dickens—the most popular writer in the world at the time– would sometimes put his head into a bucket of cold water, dry his hair with a towel, and then go on writing.

Creative outliers learn—often at an early age–that they will achieve more if they concentrate their efforts in one area. They are aware only of the work before them, and let nothing divert them from it. French novelist Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. He said too, “Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brains don’t melt away. I am leading a stern existence, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent rage, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but which never abates.”

French novelist/poet/dramatist Victor Hugo started his day by handing his clothes to his servant with strict orders to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of seven hours. Composer Igor Stravinsky and novelist Thomas Wolfe worked all their lives in a frenzy—Wolfe in a “wild ecstasy” at top speed, never hesitating for a word, as though he were taking dictation.

You can’t measure intensity and a person’s pure life force. But the energy pouring out of outliers like Vincent van Gogh would bowl you over. Van Gogh vincent-van-gogh-starry-night-1889worked  furiously at a fever pitch, gathering up the colors as though with a shovel, throwing them on canvas with rage, globs of paint covering the length of the paint brush, sticking to his fingers. Goethe called such super-charged outliers “demoniacs”–people with a super-abundance of vitality, “something that escapes analysis, reason, and comprehension.” Goethe was aware of this power in himself.

Russian Anton Chekhov wrote 10,000 pages of short stories, and also produced great plays like The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya, and was a practicing physician too. Noted architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller was often unable to stop working until he dropped from exhaustion. Isaac Asimov, author or editor of more than 500 books, said he wrote for the same reason he breathed—because if he didn’t, he would die.

Extraordinary creative outliers are guided by an ambition, a notion so bold that it’s almost outlandish:  that you’re born with a certain aptitude and with direction, discipline, and sacrifice you can transform yourself into something magnificent. Their focus is maniacal—all day long every day. When they’re away from their work they long for it.

Nobel novelist Toni Morrison said, “But the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I Toni Morrisondon’t go to cocktail parties. I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate.” Outlier novelist Philip Roth said, “My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours.” American William Faulkner said jokingly, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

We live in a world where everyone is selling something. Everyone has an ulterior motive. They want to be a brand. But these outliers only want one goal: to reach the highest heights they can. That’s it. There’s nothing else.

You look at Picasso and Faulkner and say, “Oh, that’s why painting and writing were invented. As if the gods of the arts declared, ‘To show you others how it should be done we’re going to make a person to represent perfection’.”

They have bad days, difficulties, and setbacks, and still believe in themselves. Andre Gide said, “The great artist is one …for whom the obstacle is a springboard.”   They know that effort is more important than talent. And if you say to them, “You’re just so gifted” they’ll stop you and say, “No, I’m no more talented than anyone else, no more talented than you, but I work much harder” and tell you and me, “If you want to excel you’ll have to overcome the notion that it’s easy.”

They’re a psychologically phenomenal combination of purity of focus and energy-1101474_640purity of discipline and purity of energy. Their creative lives are both comfortable and disciplined.  Even when they’re miserable they’re happy. Age has little effect on their skills except to improve them. They’re never happier and more at ease than when under pressure. They have a sense of being destined for something that very few other people are fitted for. But they are and they know they are.

They have a supreme care about their craft, and they never forget their failures. Their craft is their sanctuary. They’re never better than when doing their craft.

Outlier playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “I am of the opinion that my life sparks-142486_640belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible…”

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

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Filed under Artistic Perfection, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner, George Bernard Shaw, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Literature, Motivation, Outliers, Picasso, Poetry, Preparation, Self-Confidence, Self-Direction, Stamina, Success, The Writer's Path, Thomas Wolfe, Vincent van Gogh, Work Production, Writers

Why Do Creative People Write Blogs?

Until I started writing a blog I’d never read one. And one thing that surprised me right away was how so many talented, creative people writing them were woman-865111_640talking so freely, so honestly, and so candidly—so confidentially–about their work in progress. And knowing that hardly anyone does anything without expecting something in return, I wondered why they were doing that. What were they gaining? And were they losing something by doing it as I had been led to believe a creator who did that would? Now I can see that they are gaining something of immeasurable benefit.

I cannot imagine myself showing work in progress I’m serious about or discussing it with anyone until I think it’s finished and that I’ve done the best I can. To get that feeling about the work I’m serious about such as a book or a literary sketch, I might make major changes in it 70 or 75 times before anyone else knows about it. When I was writing what was to become my most popular book, an award-winning poet/professor of literature friend and I would get together every two or three weeks and talk  intensely for hours about writers and writing (and jazz, and the price of apples—that kind of thing–etc.).

And for two years I never once mentioned the book I was spending 18 or 20 hours a day writing. I told him about it when I gave him the date it would be typing-849807_640hitting the book stores.  He said “What the hell?” I didn’t show him. I didn’t show my wife. I didn’t show other friends. I didn’t show anyone because I didn’t want to hear anything that might affect my vision of the work, my plans for it, or my enthusiasm for it. And I believed that if you talked about your work in progress you’d dissipate the drive and energy you should be using to write it. I was very happy with my editor who didn’t give me a word of advice except to say, “An introduction would be a good idea,” and then as I turned chapters in said simply, “It’s really very good.”

But once the work in my mind is done I want to hear the frankest and most direct criticism, the kind a creator gains the most from—if it’s from someone who knows what they’re talking about.  A teacher in college said to me, “A good friend is one who’ll kick you in the teeth constructively” and that has always stayed with me. Without adequate feedback, effective learning is impossible and performance improvements only minimal, even for the most highly gifted artists or writers.

You need to have a good sense of your strengths and weaknesses as a creator. Often the best route to that kind of self-understanding is via constructive feedback and help from other people who won’t know about you unless you tell them the way bloggers tell you, “Here I am in England, Russia, Paraguay, Australia, Oman, etc., and I’m working hard.”

Getting help, support, and feedback is a major strategy for reaching creative excellence.  Without any doubt at all, performance feedback, support, high blogging-15968_640motivation, and writing success go hand in hand despite what anyone says to the contrary. Being deprived of support and positive feedback is a big reason why so many thousands of creators give up their craft altogether and   turn to other pursuits, hoping to find fulfillment there. And maybe finding it, maybe not.

I suppose I was thinking along the lines of William Faulkner who said, “The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity.”  Or Truman Capote who said, “I never show anybody a single thing I write…I write it and finish it and this is the way it’s going to be.” Or Hans Koning, author of 40 books who wrote, “You don’t worry about what editors or reviewers may like or not like. (That comes afterward.) You don’t write…in order to get an independent judgment. Your own judgment is independent. You don’t accept any suggested changes except where you made a factual or grammatical mistake. My motto has been through all these years: Not a comma.” (And I once had an editor who told me she was so depressed because she’d argued for an hour with a writer about a comma.)

Ernest Hemingway believed talking about your work was bad luck and that writers should work in disciplined isolation, and “should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then.” Otherwise they become “like writers in New York.” He thought that giving a public reading of your work in progress was “the lowest thing a writer can do” and was “dangerous” for the writer. If people liked the writing and said, “It’s great Ernest,” he would think, “If these bastards like it what is wrong with it?” “It made me feel sick for people to talk about my writing to my face.”

When I ask myself why I’m so private about my work until in my mind it’s finished (at that point I’d like every person on earth to read it) my theory is it’s because growing up we did not talk openly about personal things that were important to us and were taught not to blow our own horn, not to be showy in any way, and that has had a lasting effect on me. Not showing off is a value I think of all born and bred bona fide American Middle Westerners. Even now when I find myself showing off in my writing I say to myself, “Cut it out.”

I’ve often thought about there being so many women artist and writer bloggers and so few men and such strong relationships between the women. It’s kind of woman-69531_640lonely for me. But I sit back and read what creative women say to each other and just as often have thought, “There’s something very special, very wonderful going on. Look how they understand each other, how they comprehend each other’s meanings, the nuances and subtleties. And how they raise each others’ confidence.”

When I look at the comments such forthright writer and artist bloggers receive about their experiences with their works in progress, what strikes me is that what they receive mainly is not technical information. There’s very little discussion of that at all, or it’s superficial—a few positive words. No, they talk about what they’re going through—their difficulties, successes, failures, setbacks, fears, and hopes, the balance they’re trying so hard to strike between their creative life and their family and work lives. And that’s exactly what readers want more than anything to hear about and what they respond to.

Before I’d thought of writing a blog and I don’t think knew what a blog was, my son Eli, a writer himself, told me I should write one.  “Me?” I said. And he said, “Yes.” He said I was writing every day for hours and producing volumes of work, and that I should share it with other people and receive feedback from them.

How I love now to wake in the morning and still drowsy-eyed go upstairs to my work room, and there on the screen see that I’d been visited overnight by viewers from the world’s capitals and desert villages, remote South Sea and map-221210_640Atlantic islands, and African mountain kingdoms accessible only by horseback–Lesotho, Sri Lanka, Somalia–and to hear from them that they like what I’m doing and look forward to it. What a joy to hear from bloggers from everywhere who’ve become my friends, whose work I admire, to hear the stories of the lives they’re leading and to care about them and about hard they’re trying and  to think about them.

What honest bloggers receive in return for their blogging is what every creative person hungers for—companionship, friendship, kindness, generosity, and words of blessed encouragement.  To “discourage” someone is to steal their courage away from them, but to “encourage” them is to give them courage. When we’re deeply discouraged –and that is so often in the arts–our courage abandons us and one way or another we must retrieve it or we will perish creatively. The main thing a writer or artist–or actor or dancer–has to overcome is getting discouraged.

Even the smallest encouragement during difficult times bolsters a person’s spirits. Someone, anyone, saying, “Just hang in there, my friend, a little longer.”

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

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Creative People Need Optimism

I’ve mentioned before that while most of my blog readers are extremely talented and impressive artists and writers of all sorts in 135 countries, I don’t usually write about technique. That information can be gotten in a thousand places, and usually what’s said you’ve heard 200 times before. No, the turf I’ve staked out for myself concerns what I call The Inner Skills of Creative People. For there, I think, inside you, in your spirit, will be found the magical difference between run of the mill, adequate creators and great ones. Technique is important but will take you only so far. There’s more to being a creator. There is just something about great painters, writers, dancers, and actors that makes them great, and it comes from within.

So I write freely and happily about such creators’ necessities as courage, persistence, tenacity, will power, commitment, empowerment, sense of purpose, and discipline.  And resilience, enthusiasm, guts, self-motivation, boldness, doggedness, adaptability, endurance, and other spiritual dimensions of you, the creator.

And today I’ll write about the creator’s Inner Skill of optimism. 

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens

What separates winners from losers, Olympic athletes from other world class competitors? According to a group of researchers who studied America’s top wrestlers, the difference is not in physical ability, and it’s not in training methods–they’re pretty standard. Wrestlers eliminated in Olympic trials tended to be self-doubting, confused, and pessimistic before the match. The winners were optimistic, positive, and relaxed.  Those who made the team were also more poised and in control of their reactions than the losers, who were more likely to become emotionally upset. The researchers were able to predict 92% of the winners by using profiles of the wrestlers alone–without seeing a single wrestling match!

It’s not only in athletic performance that optimists fare better than pessimists, but in school and work performance too. In one experiment, students’ success on tests was more related to their optimism than to their intelligence. A positive, optimistic frame of mind increases power and effectiveness. A pessimistic frame of mind depletes them.

One major job of writers and artists is to sell their work—to magazines and publishers, and galleries, show sponsors, and clients. It stands to reason that the more optimistic writer and artist will have more selling success than their museum-184947_640pessimistic counterparts because optimists make better sales people than pessimists. A study was done of two groups of people selling over the phone. One group was comprised of trained and experienced sales people who were pessimistic. The others were women who didn’t have a single day of experience or training in sales at all, but scored high on a test for optimism. The untrained and inexperienced women optimists easily out-performed the trained and experienced pessimists. So if you’re not a natural optimist, you may wish to see the strategies below.

Anyone who’s trying to be creative should aim for an optimistic mood. Pessimism decreases creative productivity. But a mood of optimism improves problem-finding and problem-solving abilities, and if there are two abilities every creator needs it is to be able to find the main problems to solve and to be able to solve them. Creators in an optimistic mood feel safe, which fosters bolder, more relaxed and creative approaches. Optimists are more willing to take risks.

Optimism entails:

  1. Feeling free and easy as you write, paint, dance, or act.
  2. Being collected, composed, and calm; not fretting and worrying or being grumpy, resentful, or irritable.
  3. Putting unsolvable problems aside, forgiving yourself for past  mistakes and letting them go.
  4. Being decisive and taking actions that will benefit you.
  5. Thinking hopefully.
  6. Being endlessly curious about life and confident that you can handle whatever it brings.
  7. Maintaining hope and faith in the rightness of things and the future, and that things will work out for the best; trusting your luck.
  8. Ridding yourself of bad habits.
  9. Having confidence and feeling in control of things and master of your destiny.
  10. Being open, trusting, genuine, sincere, kindly, and generous with others.
  11. Being brave and totally focused and clear-minded in action.
  12. Experiencing moments of bliss knowing that at that moment you and your life are at their best.
  13. Never letting setbacks penetrate your spirit; expecting to succeed and not to fail.
  14. Holding no illusions, but  knowing exactly where you are in life, where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there.
  15. Having implicit and unshakable confidence in your goals and not budging a single inch from them, being willing to work hard for them, knowing that fear is your most powerful enemy and that there’s nothing to fear and no reason to hold anything back.

This is the route to optimism and personal power.

Pessimistic writers and artists believe they’re not in control, that creative tasks are too much for them. If you believe you’re not in control, you set lower goals and have a weak commitment to them. But the more strongly you believe that you are in control the higher the goals you set, the stronger your determination to achieve them, and the longer you persevere, even in the face of adversity. Optimistic writers and artists take adversity as a challenge and aren’t discouraged. Trouble ignites them, it fires them up; they’re confident, and they come to life. Even as a young poet Anne Sexton sent out a poem as soon as it was rejected.  Sometimes she sent out the same poem fifteen times.

rose-1130037_640Optimists are able to persist just as strongly in the face of difficulties as when everything is rosy because they have absolute confidence in themselves and hold a favorable view of their future. Persisting rather than giving up, they’re more likely to succeed. Succeeding increases their self-confidence and optimism even more, and they apply themselves again. This cycle is true of people doing any kind of work, from workers on an assembly line to their supervisors, from students to their teachers, from children to their parents, from one writer or artist to another: wherever you find optimists and pessimists.

Optimism does not take the place of talent, focus, hard work, and the development of skills. But if there are two equally talented and hardworking artists or writers–an optimist and a pessimist–the optimist will go further and have more success. And pessimism can destroy creative talent.

Seven Strategies for Maintaining Your Optimism

  1. Think optimistic and hopeful thoughts–not just once in a while, but all the time, whatever the circumstances. When you find yourself thinking unpleasantly, pessimistically, change and think optimistic thoughts. The only way to drive out an undesirable thought is by substituting a powerful desirable thought. By thinking differently, you can replace writers’ and artists’ self-doubt and discouragement with self-confidence, fear with courage, boredom with interest, and pessimism with optimism. Don’t dwell on the negative, but jump over to the positive every time. Be like a fish in a stream and swish your tail and quickly change directions. Think thoughts that make you feel free and easy, composed and confident, free of worry, and brave. Just kick every other kind of thought out of your mind.
  2. Be addicted to goals and action. The path to living optimistically lies in action. Optimistic action immediately invigorates you.
  3. Always maintain high hopes no matter what. The question isn’t whether you’ll experience defeat, but how you’ll handle it when you do. Everyone without a single exception takes it on the chin sometime. When you’re beaten–by an event, a situation, a circumstance, a person–gather yourself up, be resolved, and come back again. Never let misfortune penetrate your depths. Setbacks can’t defeat an optimistic and determined person. That’s not possible. The optimism of a creative person needs to be indestructible.
  4. Don’t dwell on past failures. Why punish yourself with what didn’t work out? When you’re knocked down, get up right away. Get back on your feet. Regain your bearings. The next moment offers a reprieve, a new beginning. Seize it.
  5. Continually look to past successes. List them on a sheet of paper and you’ll see how long a list can be. Look at them when you doubt yourself and your optimism will return.
  6. Spend time with optimists as much as possible. Birds of a feather flock together, so choose your birds very carefully.
  7. Learn to play. The joke goes that a horse sits down at a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?” You run into long-faced people at work, the check-out stand, the post office, writers’ groups and artists’ groups–everywhere–all the time. But people with a sense of humor are happier, healthier, and more optimistic.

sun-314340_640You know very well that if your thoughts are pessimistic–if you’re “off”–your commitment to action is not 100% and your spirit and energy are weak. You don’t feel like working; you take the day off. But when you’re optimistic and know what you want and are confident you can get it, you’re able to devote yourself to it with a powerful singleness of purpose. When you’re like that there is almost no way of stopping you from any success you  dream of.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Stamina: The Creative Person’s Hidden Power

Middle distance runners are deep and analytical, contemplative, aware of the slightest changes in their body and mind. I ran fastest at three in the afternoon when the temperature was 88 degrees and my mind was clear. Creative people are also deep and analytical, contemplative, aware of the slightest changes in their body and mind.

I was in training for my event, the 800 meters. That workout I decided I’d run as many laps around the quarter mile athletics-229808_640(1)track as I could at three-quarters speed. After a few laps the pain I was so familiar with began gradually to set in. And the difficulty breathing. Then with each lap the pain in my legs, my arms, my chest—my entire body–became more severe, breathing even more difficult. And I thought about quitting. How easy that would be. Just step off the track and the pain would cease and I wouldn’t have to go through this anymore. I thought, “No one is making me run but myself.” The thought of stopping was very powerful and I had to fight it.

But I didn’t stop, I didn’t slow down. I increased my speed (I would show this pain) and the pain was much worse. I thought, “How long can a person endure this?” Then I thought, “I am a middle distance runner. Middle distance runners can bear pain.”

But then, after I had pushed myself as hard as I could and suffered that pain longer than I thought possible but continued to run, I passed into a new and miraculous state of being. One moment I was in agony; the next I wasn’t. I had entered a place, a garden, where pain couldn’t exist. All pain and exhaustion were lifted out of my body and I could breathe easily again. The running suddenly was smooth, effortless, and strong, my form perfect.

runner-728219_640That afternoon, one of my teammates after another quit his training and left for home. But I ran lap after lap far into the night. I had the feeling I could run forever.

That experience has become a metaphor for me. I go back to it in my mind time and again. It inspires me and I am a hard worker and have stamina.

Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow said, “For the artist work is the main thing and always comes first.” Psychologist Howard Gardner writes about high-excelling creative people. He says, “Individuals whose stock in trade is to do things which are novel, are people who’ve got to have a pretty good command of how they work.” Some writers and artists produce 10, 15, 25 times more work than others and those most productive usually rise higher in their field and find a greater sense of accomplishment. The more work you produce the higher quality your work will tend to be because the more you do something, the better you get.

There’s a lot to be said for the benefits of prolonged, intense working spurts, for in a study of writers, writers who achieve the most are those who wrote:

…THE MOST INTENSELY

…FOR THE LONGEST AMOUNT OF TIME

…OVER THE LONGEST TIME SPAN

High achieving writers and artists, like athletes in training, exert more energy from the start of a project and work steadily without long interruptions for a much longer period than the majority of writers and artists–for days, months, lyrics-710329_640years if necessary, often producing staggering amounts of work. What enables them—what enables you– to operate continually at a higher level of stamina?

It’s excitement or necessity or both, excitement over the production of a work or the necessity of overcoming obstacles to produce it—and the habit they’ve developed of working through tiredness. Creative people will push themselves to an extreme day after day and overcome impediments when they are on fire with the excitement of creating.

But many artists and writers produce very little because they stop working at the first sign of fatigue. They’re in the habit of quitting when tired. Better to ratchet up and exert more effort then, not less. Then you acquire the ability to not tire easily, a creator’s and athlete’s major skill in itself, and your work production rises, and with it, its quality.

If you quit at the first sign of tiredness, you develop the habit you don’t want of tiring quickly and giving up. Every time you reach the point when you seem to have no energy left, yet push yourself a little further, you train yourself to draw from deeper into your energy reserves at will. If you push yourself on then—painting another hour, finishing the chapter–the tiredness gets worse, but only up to a point. Then it reaches a peak and fades away as my running pain faded. You know that from our own experience. Then you’re fired up by a sense that you can go on creating much longer than you’ve realized. Fatigue is replaced by an explosive surge.

Focus on your goal of finishing this work on your easel, on your computer screen. Let your urge to reach high levels of excellence in your craft consume you. The result will be a new freedom, new stamina, and new creative power.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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13 High Achievement Skills for Artists and Writers

Part I

I’m writing a book that says high achievement for artists and writers is within reach. It describes eight qualities creators need if they are to excel. If even one quality is missing, they will not excel. Day after day for a week I made no progress on one section. I would sit down to work at the computer and find myself fiddling around mindlessly for a few hours, then going down to the kitchen for a snack or looking around for someone to talk to, or I’d do laundry or something and after a while would go back upstairs to the computer with every intention of working on that section only to find myself Laundrychecking the sports scores. Then I’d quit for the day and feel that nagging dissatisfaction with myself that writers and artists so often feel. Finally I sat down on my recliner to try to get to the bottom of this and asked myself, “What’s the problem?” and I immediately answered, “That section is too easy for me.”

Most people in the world can be divided psychologically into two broad groups. Probably you are in one group, just as I am. There is the minority who set and pursue challenges for themselves and are willing to work hard to achieve something, and then the majority who don’t care about challenges all that much and don’t work hard. Those two groups are to be found among artists and writers everywhere in the world, just as they can be found among students, accountants, businessmen and women, athletes, and people in any other field. Mozart was a tremendous worker who practiced, performed, and gripped a quill pen to compose so many hours that by the age of 26 his hands were deformed.

The first group that sets out in pursuit of challenges possesses a distinct kind of motivation, a specific kind of measurable psychological need that the group that is indifferent to challenges lacks. That need is called Achievement Motivation, Success Motivation, or The Need to Achieve, and the people who have it are those who reach higher achievements than most other people, certainly higher than those who don’t care. (Much of the initial work on race-695303_640Achievement Motivation was done by psychologist David C. McClelland). The achievers are more successful artists and writers, just they are more successful students, physicians, athletes, salespeople and business executives. It is naïve of a creator to think talent alone will take a person to great heights. Most teachers of writers and artists will tell you that it is rarely the most talented pupil who dazzled the class that they hear and read about later. They hear about the one who was the most determined to succeed and the most dogged—a member of the first group.

So it seems to me extremely important if you want to enjoy more success, however you define success, to understand what high success people are like, so if you wish, you can become more like them and achieve more creatively and find more fulfillment. If they are in the business world, achievement motivated men and women have high career aspirations just as achievement motivated writers and artists are ambitious and have high career aspirations. Author Ernest Hemingway was as ambitious as anyone. An unbelievably hard worker, he wanted nothing less than to be the world’s greatest writer. And in 1954 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he was. Vincent van Gogh said that while he wasn’t successful during his life—he sold only one painting in his lifetime and traded another for brushes–one day he would take his place among the immortals. In the work world achievement motivated people get more raises and are promoted rapidly. If they are unemployed they get new jobs more quickly than less motivated people. Companies that employ a lot of them prosper.

If you are in the first group—achievers—I know you very well. I know how you think. I know how you act. I know your values. I know something about how your parents reared you. I know what color clothes you prefer to wear.

man-73318_150First of all, you are definitely goal-directed, and it’s no secret to you that achieving goals will require that you follow a linked series of steps over an often long period of months or years as you progress from beginner to expert, and sometimes amateur to professional. P.G. Wodehouse said, “Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.”

From the start you exert yourself and mobilize more energy to reach your goals than other people. And you are able to persist steadily without interruption whereas poorly motivated writers and artists have low energy and will interrupt their work more often and not engage in it for long periods, even years. That can have a detrimental effect: if you neglect an activity for just 48 hours you function much less effectively when you resume the activity. While achievement people are hard persistent workers, they need not fill their entire day with work and are able to cut out and enjoy leisure time. At least in America most people work at least 7 hour days and must travel to and from work, but professional writers usually work at home about four hours, 16.7 % of the day, leaving 20 hours for other things (though some, like prolific novelist Philip Roth, work all the time).

paintings-316440_640A long gestation period is required before artists and writers are fully developed and performing at their peak, and during that period you spend your time actively thinking about how to do things better. You constantly talk about doing things better. You’re concerned with getting better all the time. You take classes, you study, you read, you learn. In other words, you are dominated by what is called An Urge to Improve. It’s not difficult to understand why people who constantly think about doing better:

  1. Are apt to do better at what they’re interesting in doing better
  2. Prefer working in situations where they can tell easily if they are improving or aren’t
  3. Keep track of their performance so they can tell if they’re in fact doing better

If you are an achiever, the goals you set are one or more of four types:

One, you compete with yourself, trying to achieve more in the future than you’ve achieved in the past. Is this true of you? If it is, you stay interested by aiming higher and higher. Once you’ve achieved a goal, the goal loses its luster and you now want something more. You had an essay published. That’s over and done; now you’ll write a book.

Two, you compete with others. You may not like it, but unless you do your creative work solely for the joy of it, you have to compete. Hundreds of writers, possibly thousands, are trying to get their stories in the same magazines as you and as many artists are trying to get their work shown in the same galleries. As novelist Doris Lessing said: “You have to remember that nobody ever wants a new writer. You have to create your own demand.” No one wants a new painter either. And so to draw attention to yourself in a cluttered field of one talented person among many talented people, you must develop the competitive survival skills of the showman and self-promoter.

The necessity of competing needn’t cause anxiety if you learn to be dispassionate and non-attach. Then you see competing as just another challenge and role, the role of the marketer of your work, a set of skills that can be learned, the logical conclusion of all your development and all your work.

Three, you engage in a long-term involvement over the long haul, and four, you pursue unique accomplishments–definitions of the work of writers and artists.

painting-316135_640You have sub-goals which will lead in an orderly way to the achievement of your major goals. For example, you know that to do as well as you hope, you’ll need to acquire more and more knowledge of your craft throughout your career. Knowledge is not quite everything, but almost. Writers and artists of all kinds draw from all the cumulative knowledge they’ve acquired. They do that sometimes consciously, sometimes spontaneously. What they know is reflected in their every word, every turn of phrase, every image, every idea, and every choice of color and perspective and every brush stroke. So it is incumbent on them if they are to excel to learn more and more about their craft, including how it’s done and how others have done it.

You take a futuristic view and are a long-range planner who keeps his/her goals in mind continually. They are never out of your mind very long. (In itself, this makes you exceptional because most people have very little idea of what their goals are and don’t think of them often.) The more important the goal is to a low-motivated person, the less interested in it he becomes. He loses focus on what’s important. But the more important it is to you, the achiever, the more challenging and therefore the more interesting to you it is. As it becomes ever more important it becomes ever more challenging and ever more interesting.

It’s worth remembering that to an achievement motivated person like yourself failure to achieve a goal makes the goal more attractive, not less. Failure doesn’t devastate you, but pushes you to greater effort because now it is even more of a challenge, and you thrive on challenges. You try again. And then again and again tenaciously until you succeed, whereas a less strongly motivated writer or artist may not try a second time and never reach success.

You are aware that reaching your goals depends on how difficult they are in relation to your capabilities. The ideal you’re trying for is to match your abilities perfectly with your goals, your abilities equipping you to achieve them all. If you lack the ability, you cannot reach the goal. Simple tasks and very difficult tasks are interesting to people with low motivation, but not to those with achievement motivation like yourself. You’re drawn to goals that are moderately difficult—not too easy; not too hard, but a little out of reach. Goals like that motivate you the most.

It’s been said that if writers were good businessmen, they’d have too much sense to be writers, and John Steinbeck said the profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business, and the same is true of painting, dancing, and acting. If you’re an achievement motivated writer or artist you won’t even try to reach goals that in your judgment of your own capabilities you don’t have at least a 30% chance of reaching. I submitted a manuscript to a publisher with the odds of publication statistically about 3,000 to 1 against. But I was confident and thought I had a 30% chance. I was right and the book was published.

joshua-tree-5104_640You will not pursue goals that aren’t challenging enough. Sure things hold no excitement for you. They’re not interesting, just as the section of the book I’m writing is too easy for me. So you spice things up to make the goals more challenging, sometimes making the sculpture or the novel you’re working on more complicated, more ambitious, something, you’ve never tried before, for example. If something is important to the achiever, she will sometimes work days or weeks non-stop. But if it isn’t, she’ll avoid work. She’ll go fishing.

Think about your three main writing/art goals at this time. Your crucial goals should always be held clearly in mind so that if I asked you could quickly say…

“No doubt about it, my major overriding goal now is…

“My second most important goal is…

“Also very important is…

Do you feel all in all you have a 30%-65% chance of reaching them? (I’m asking you if they are moderately difficult goals, the achiever’s aim.)

 

Part II

 You work in intense, concentrated spurts (which studies find now is the most effective way to work). Other people often marvel at your capacity for sustained effort. They ask, “What do you have going for you that you can stick to it and never seem to tire?” It’s because you are achievement motivated. But when the work is done, you put it completely out of mind and want nothing more to do with it. You want to go on right away to the next moderately difficult project, or you want to go to the beach and forget all about your work. The change from hard work to a total disinterest in work is so extreme at times that your significant other will say to you, “One minute you’re a ball of fire, the next I can’t get you to do a thing.” A research study found that professional writers couldn’t remember what they had just written, but amateurs could remember very clearly what they had written.

You consider your goals very carefully if you are achievement motivated. You “research the environment,” gathering information wherever you can and consider the probability of success of a variety of alternatives and try to find goals and tasks that will excite you. Should you continue working on the project you’ve started or stop and begin something else? One thing experienced creative people are good at is knowing when something is not going to work out, and if it isn’t, they don’t hesitate to junk it. Writers have been known to write an entire book, then decide they don’t like it and put it in a drawer and forget about it. Should you get help? Getting help is a sign in itself that you’re trying to reach the goal. Should you try something completely different such as a new style, a new technique, a new market for your work? You take time to reflect on your career, your strengths, your weaknesses, your ambitions, and your possible future continually.

When you set goals you spend more time thinking about what it would be like to succeed than what it would be like to fail. You don’t dwell on failure, only on success. And what is success to you? It is reaching excellence. Producing excellent work is far more important to you than prestige. But prestige is more important than excellence to those whose motivation is low, and they dwell on the possibility of failure.

When working in a group setting and asked to pick someone to help them solve a problem, low motivated people will tend to choose friends, but the most highly motivated will choose for a partner someone who’s more able than they are, friend or no friend.

You are task-oriented, a hard-worker no matter what the situation is—writing, painting, doing chores, planning a novel, assembling a dresser. The low-motivated writer or artist avoids working hard whenever he can. Also, highly motivated people, surprisingly, are better able to recall tasks they didn’t finish. And if they’re given a chance, they will return and compete those tasks. Even tasks that were interrupted many years before—the so-called Zeigarnik Effect. Achievers are not comfortable with unfinished business.

You prefer to take personal responsibility for outcomes rather than to leave the outcome to chance. You want outcomes to be the result of your own efforts and your own skills. You are not a gambler if no personal skills are involved and if winning and losing is a matter of luck and not of skill. Lotteries and slot-machines aren’t appealing because no skill is involved. If you were able to throw dice with a 1 in 3 chance of success or work on a problem with the same odds, you will choose to work on the problem because the result would be dependent on your abilities rather than chance.

Since achievement motivated people are always interested in improving their performance, they crave feedback on how well they are doing. The feedback must be (1) rapid and (2) specific. They want to know now and they want to know why. They are writers and artists who want constructive criticism.

So if you wish to be more of an achieving writer and artist:

  1. Pursue moderately difficult goals that require: a) doing better, b) competing for success, and c) engaging in projects that need long-term involvement and unique accomplishments.
  2. Get in the habit of researching your environment, looking for many sources of useful information you’ll need to set reasonable and attractive goals.
  3. Don’t dwell on failure; dwell on success. Think of what it will be like when you’ve succeeded.
  4. Be always expanding your knowledge. Set knowledge development learning goals.
  5. Take a long-term view of your writing, your painting, your sculpting.
  6. Be interested in excellence for its own sake.
  7. Work intensely in spurts and persist in the face of failure.
  8. Carefully consider the probability of success achieving each of your goals.
  9. Take personal responsibility for your work and your career.
  10. Get rapid and specific feedback on your efforts continually.
  11. Get help
  12. Be thinking all the time of how to do things better.
  13. Place your confidence in your own abilities and your own hard work.

I’ll have to find a way to make writing that section of the artist’s and writer’s book more interesting—more moderately difficult–so I can work harder and finish it. We’ll see what happens.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Boredom and Burnout: What To Do When Artistic Work Stops Being Fun

barbed-wire-345760_640During World War II prisoners of war often contracted “barbed wire disease.” It was not the result of maltreatment, but of lack of stimulation. Ships’ crews, explorers, and people in monasteries contract it too. It is characterized by irritability, restlessness, pessimism, and boredom. Nothing excites them. They lack vitality, freshness, energy, and verve. Writers and artists—often those working on a project steadily for a long time, especially without feedback—may develop a form of barbed wire disease.

They go flat and their work becomes a burden and its quality suffers grievously. When work is drudgery creativity quickly declines. You’ve experienced that, sometimes for considerable periods of time, and sometimes to the extent that you don’t want to face the work and so you avoid it, entering a stage of total non-productivity about which you feel miserable. No two ways about it, you’ve now come eye to eye with a major obstacle.

I’m sure I am not the only serious writer who after working steadily and intensely for a long time writing, writing, writing, writing experiences a “word nausea” when you become sick of the sight of written words. For a time you cannot write; nor can you tolerate reading another word. When you’re experiencing a writer’s or painters barbed wire disease, keyboard-313373_640you can always imagine a more exciting place to be, a more exciting thing to be doing, and exciting people to be doing it with. Sometimes the disease spreads and everything turns gray and seems boring beyond belief. When you’ve burned out and bored you “kill time,” hoping the barbed wire disease will blessedly pass.

Here’s what you can do:

Strategies

If your interest starts to decline make the “boring” task a game. In my first writing job I wrote grant proposals for an organization. I wrote many, many of them. At the beginning, the proposals were quite long and the success rate quite high. Millions of dollars were raised. Writing grant proposals every day from 8:30 to 5:00 is a ritual that is not nearly as stimulating as writing a poem or novel, as you can imagine. They are dry, and after a number of them you burn out. I needed a more interesting, more challenging goal. So then my goal became to raise the level of funds the organization received as a result of my proposals relative to the length of the proposal—to write the shortest possible proposals for the most money. Eventually the proposals were extremely short, but just as successful.

How could you make your work a game, a contest? One way is to monitor your daily production and make the aim of the game to produce more every day compared to the previous days. Every hour I monitor the number of words I’m producing and look at yesterday’s tallies.

Focus continually on your overall goal. Success in life is often built on tedium. Tedium can be tolerated if it must be endured to achieve a larger purpose that matters a great deal to you–to write a good book, to have your work in galleries, to be satisfied and successful. The French Pointillist painter Georges Seurat was certainly bored some of the time–perhaps most of the time—when for two years he applied those almost three and a half million tiny dots of various hues to a ten foot wide canvas to paint Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the painting that altered modern art and introduced Neo-impressionism. But that was his purpose, and his boredom was irrelevant to him.

Choose to do what you’re doing. Boredom is often caused by the sense that you’re being forced. But when you declare your right to make a decisive choice and say to yourself, “I’m choosing to do this of my own free will,” your outlook changes dramatically.

Focus on external rewards. When you’re bored, the work has lost its intrinsic value to you so think of other rewards: “I may not be happy with the work but I’m going to make a lot of money, and maybe I’ll win an award.”

Have the intention of doing just what you’re doing, nothing else—no distractions, no impediments, no worries, fears, or self-doubts. Just you and the work. Boredom is caused by the wish that there were something else you were doing: “I wish I were…” at a movie, or making love, or sitting in the bleachers. Make what you’re doing the single thing at that time you have every intention of doing. You don’t change the task. You change your attitude. You can mesmerize yourself with the thought, “This, now, right now, is the one thing in the world I want to do. Nothing could be better.”

Look for something of interest in the work and in the process of working–even if you have to look hard. There is always at least a tiny core worthy of your interest in everything, like the eye of a violet. What is boring for your friend may be the most exciting thing in the world for you. That’s because nothing is intrinsically boring. Physicists and formula-594149_640(1)mathematicians love spending their lives scribbling figures on chalkboards. Would you like to spend your best hours doing that? But people do. And then again many people would find what you love doing—producing artistic work as often as you can—about as unpleasant an activity as they can imagine.

If you tell yourself something is boring that’s just how you’ll find it, so never use that word or any such word. Eliminate them from your vocabulary starting now. Our emotions follow what we’re thinking, including boredom. Instead of, “Oh, man, I can’t stand this anymore,” think, “To say I can’t stand it is incorrect. It’s an exaggeration. I can stand it. I will stand it.” Instead of, “Damn, is this tedious” replace it with an interest-inducing statement: “There is something stimulating here. All I have to do is stay focused long enough to find it. Look—there’s something interesting!” By focusing and absorbing yourself in something, it becomes more interesting. And the more interesting it becomes the more you’ll be drawn to it, the more attention you’ll want to give to it, and the more engrossing it will become.

The famous naturalist Louis Agassiz was known for turning out students with incredible powers of observation. Many of them went on to become eminent in the field. A new student appeared and asked Agassiz to teach him. Agassiz took a fish from a jar of preservative and said, “Observe this fish carefully and when I return be ready to report to me what you noticed.”

goldfish-537832_640Left alone, the student sat down to look at the fish. It was a fish like any other fish. There was nothing special about it. The student finished looking and sat waiting, but no teacher. Hours passed and the student grew restless. He asked himself why he had hooked up with an old man who was obviously behind the times.

Bored and with nothing else to do, he counted the fish’s scales, then the spines of the fins, then drew a picture of it. In doing so he noticed it had no eyelids. He continued drawing and noticed other features that had escaped him. And he learned that a fish is interesting if you really see it.

Persevere longer with whatever bores you. The person who holds uninteresting ideas in mind until they gather interest will succeed. Many people give up too quickly.

Wait. The sense of boredom may go away on its own without you doing a thing.

Tackle the most interesting part of the job first. Most tasks have features that you find boring and others that you find more interesting. Bodybuilders often start their workouts with lifts they enjoy most. Once started, they go on to the lifts they enjoy less. Try to do the same whatever you’re lifting.

Aim for more difficult goals. If the goals you’re pursuing are too easy, you’ll be bored.

Alter your routines. Sometimes it’s not the tasks that are boring, but the routine of carrying them out. Change your schedule. People need change or they go as stale as old cookies. Much of the time our lives grow stagnant, unhappy, and mechanical for no other reason than that the same things are done in the same way, at the same time, with the same people with no variation, like a broken CD that plays the same phrase over and over. It’s torture. How many times can you follow the same never-changing routines without going nuts?

Stay physically active. Hit golf balls or get down on the floor and do pushups. Creative work requires intense, exhausting mental concentration and benefits from a “physical” break.

Take periodic breaks. Working hard in short, intense, concentrated spurts, with rest periods between spurts proves to be the best way to work.

sisters-74069_640Let your mind wander. Don’t resist. During boredom our minds wander and we daydream, and daydreaming and mind-wandering often lead to the solutions to our problems.

Get yourself temporarily to another project. Most artists have more than one project going on simultaneously—some have many. If one becomes boring, they work on another. Painters work on small paintings as a break from large paintings. Writers alternate research and writing and write short stories to break the monotony of long, uninterrupted work on a novel.

Eliminate what you find boring. Let’s say you’ve tried everything your inventive mind can conjure up and you’re so bored you can hardly breathe. If you’re that bored and that burned-out maybe you shouldn’t do it anymore. Maybe the boredom is a message telling you the book or the sculpture isn’t a good idea after all and you should go on to another. Identify the specific activities that bore you and are burning you out and slice them off like shavings off a stick.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Artists and Writers in Ecstasy

It’s not unusual for artists–painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, musicians–who are at work to be in a state of bliss, a state of ecstasy. Their enjoyment is deep, their focus uncommon, intense, and virtually super-human. Time means nothing at all and self-consciousness and self-awareness disappear. Every thought is solely of the task at hand. They have no attention left to think of anything else. There is only they and the work; all distractions, all worries, all fears, all self-doubts, and all impediments are gone—an extraordinary state of existence.

sunset-100367_640Fully absorbed, there is a rightness about everything they do; their every action is sure. The possibility of failure is of no concern. They need nothing more than the brush in their hand, their fingers on the keyboard, dancing slippers on their feet. There is nothing else—no other pleasure, no other enjoyment–that is more meaningful and brings such rewards. It is as though they are thinking:

This thing that I am doing is essential to my fulfillment and well-being. I will be tenacious; I will persist for long periods of time, not being diverted, and try to make this work I am doing exceptional, applying all the skills I’ve developed. I am finding that my skills are all that I’ve wished for and just right for this work. My mind will be sharp, my energy unstoppable. I will be relaxed and alert too—confident, in balance; in control of all my faculties. I am willing to sacrifice. At times I will forget to eat, forget to sleep. I will block out distractions as best I can. When I reach an impasse, I will ask for help. I will arrange a life-style and personal habits and routines to accommodate my work and will find the time.

 Seeking a Perfect Match of Goals and Skills

Artists begin with a vision of what at last they could become. That is the basis of their goals–a guiding vision. The major factors in achieving creative ecstasy are: being powerfully motivated to succeed, (so powerfully that it is almost impossible to keep you from your work); having the confidence that you will succeed, (if not now, eventually); making decisive choices and pursuing goals that are personally extremely meaningful (few things in your life are as important, possibly nothing is as important); receiving immediate feedback on performance every step of the way (performance feedback and high motivation go hand in hand); and possessing all the skills required to perform the task (no skill is lacking).

Often feedback comes from an external source—a teacher, for example, or mentor, the audience the artist is aiming to please, or in the case of a writer, an editor. But experienced artists have internalized the “rules” of the art and know good work from bad work so well that their most useful feedback comes from themselves. They don’t have to wait for feedback from the outside.

sisters-74069_640Many writers, painters, and dancers—possibly most; possibly most people– don’t give their goals much thought and don’t care if they achieve them. Only a minority do. And if they do care, many aren’t willing to put out the effort to reach them. Research shows that 85% of Americans wait for things to happen. Only 15% are proactive and make things happen. Many people don’t have the first notion of the causes of success or failure or how to achieve their goals—the means that must be involved. But artists in ecstasy are clear and their motivation knows no bounds.

Of special importance to ecstasy and bliss, it seems to me, is the ideal state when the artists’ skills perfectly match the goals the artists aim to achieve. The skills are exactly what’s needed to reach the goals. That means that artists should pursue goals that are not too easy, but not too difficult, based on their assessment of their skills.

 The Alternatives

If your goals are higher than your skills, you won’t achieve the goals and will feel frustration, disappointment, stress, and anxiety.

If the goals are considerably less than your skills and success is guaranteed, you’ll be bored.

Anxiety and boredom alike interfere with work and are signals that your goals need to be changed.

But if you don’t care whether you reach the goal you’ll be indifferent and apathetic.

So if you’re meeting only frustration, disappointment, and worry, you may continually be aiming too high and should lower your sights, not permanently, but until you develop your skills further and are in a better position to reach the goals. Make developing your skills to the highest level your priority, principally through deliberate practice,

And if you’re often bored, set higher goals, you’re aiming too low.

If you’re apathetic, pursue only goals that mean something to you. (I realize this isn’t always possible, such as when you’ve been given an assignment that you dislike but have no choice. But in that case find ways of making the goal more interesting, such as making it a game, as how quickly you can finish the work while still doing a good job).

If you’re often in ecstasy—some artists are every day–the balance between the difficulty of the goal and your skills is perfect.

Things That Are a Little Out of Reach

piano-302122_640The most challenging goals—and those leading to the best benefits–are those that you’re most interested in, are not completely certain you can reach, and will get the greatest satisfaction from when you achieve them. We work harder to get what is a little out of reach—but not too far. When the goals you set are difficult but achievable you’ll have no problem persisting until you achieve them. That happens automatically. If you come up short, all is not lost. Every failure is valuable feedback indicating what needs to be improved.

As your capabilities develop, as they will if you apply yourself, you will have a natural urge to seek increasingly greater challenges, higher performance, and higher achievements. As your skill level rises, so do your ambitions, and a goal that was once powerfully motivating becomes less powerful and needs to be replaced by a more difficult one. You wanted to have your artwork displayed in a gallery. Now it has been, so you want to see it in a more prestigious gallery. Your short story was published and was highly thought of; now you’re aiming for a novel. Your songs are popular, so now you will write a musical.

Setting difficult goals that require considerable work can significantly increase an artist’s motivation and at the same time, his/her performance. Difficult goals are motivating in and of themselves and build a strong sense of self-confidence. You’ll work harder to reach them. Attainable doesn’t in any sense mean easy. To write a good book may take an almost unbelievable amount of effort and persistence. Harder goals will take you to higher levels of performance than easy goals provided you’ve chosen the goals voluntarily and have or can develop the necessary skills.

People put out more effort if they consider the goals difficult, but not so difficult as to be unachievable. Yet, the creative person must also be willing to work hard and long on ambitious projects that verge on the impossible—an epic novel, an opera, a symphony.

The Definition of “Difficulty” All Depends

vincent-van-gogh-85799_640(1)Now the definition of what is a difficult or easy goal depends totally on who you are. For example, a goal that may be impossible for me may be perfectly reasonable for you. Whenever I hear someone say, “The odds of succeeding are one in ten,” I think, What you’re saying is that you think they are one in ten for you. However, they may be one in five for me. I’m going ahead with it because I think one in five is very attainable.

A Little Quiz

A goal is more difficult—and possibly impossible– to reach if you aren’t a hard worker. It’s particularly difficult if you’re lazy. Ask yourself, “How hard a worker am I?” Rate yourself on a scale of one to ten, one being “Not a very hard worker” and ten being “An exceptionally hard worker. I’m inexhaustible.”

Are you a one, a seven, or a ten? It is hard to imagine artists who have reached high levels being anything but tens. They pour tremendous stores of energy into their work. If they are separated from their painting, their writing, their music for more than 24 hours they get nervous; any longer, they get depressed. Artists who are not hard workers are in trouble.

Do you know what the causes are of success or failure in reaching goals?

Do you set artistic goals?

If so, what are they?

Are they clear? Some artists are not any more talented or intelligent than others, but they are far more successful because they have not a single doubt about what specifically they are attempting to accomplish. They are single-minded, with only that supreme goal in mind.

Do your goals match your skills or are they too high or too low?

If they are too high, how will you change them to better match your skills?

Are they a little out of reach? (If yes, that’s good.)

If they are too low, what will you do to make them more ambitious?

How important are they to you?

Not very important

Kind of important

Couldn’t possibly be more important

How do you plan to attain them?

Often when their goals are not properly matched with skills and artists are enduring periods of anxiety, disappointment, or boredom, they try to force themselves, and the work product is usually not up to the artists’ standards. But when in ecstasy and everything is aligned, they are fully functioning and can do no better.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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To Think, To Decide, To Act: Trust Only Movement

Living at White Heat

highway-393492_640“A motto for man: to do and through doing to ‘do’ himself
and be nothing but what he has made of himself.” Jean Paul Sartre

 

Katherine is such a good woman, a kind-hearted woman, obviously very bright, and likable, friendly, and generous to a fault. There is so much to her, so many gifts, so much to offer, so much promise, but she’s snagged, she’s caught, she’s trapped, and she is not looking for a way to escape. And the days pass.

Someone asked her if she’s happy and she said she is. But the next morning she thought about it and realized she isn’t. It’s no mystery to her why. She knows she’s not nearly as ambitious as she might be, and hasn’t found a heartfelt purpose to get up for in the morning. And she’s in a job she doesn’t like, but makes no attempt to find anything more suitable. Her partner abruptly ended their long relationship, and she’s lonely. But she’s made no effort to find someone else or to look for an activity she would enjoy and would divert her attention from her loneliness. She has friends, but none of them close.

Her life has settled into a tedious routine. From her building’s elevator over to the garage, the mile to the office, lunch at the Greek restaurant, the mile home, and the elevator. Laundry Wednesday night about seven and shopping on Saturday morning, the newspaper on Sunday, and on Monday at 8:30 her favorite TV show.

She looks in the mirror twice a day and sees she’s gaining weight around the middle, and doesn’t like that, but doesn’t do anything about it. No different from a billion other people, she never stops to ask herself, “Why am I living this life when I could always a live another.” She could be leading a better life, a life with meaning, if she made new decisions and followed through on them, no more apathy and no excuses.

To think, to decide, to act, to do something, to get things done, to attend to what needs attention, to reduce the distance between where you are now and where you want to be in life–that’s a human being’s inherent nature. You were not created to be stationary, to be limp and weak and unmoving, but were brought into this world with movement in mind. Action is your natural inclination, a fulfilling life your true destiny. It’s what you’re body and mind are designed for: to make choices and changes, take risks, accept responsibility, exert energy, and achieve purposes. You only reveal the person you truly are in decisive action. Only then do you reach your enormous possibilities. But you must trust only movement.

If we cast a glance at people in general we find the opposite of a continuous advance toward a better life. Standing still in life and doing nothing is plainly the common condition, resisting change even if one’s life is quietly unbearable. Letting opportunities to explore new ways of being and discover new strengths, new people, and new pleasures slip away, and slip away again.

 Recognize the Clues

No one has to tell you there’s a discrepancy between the life you’re leading and the better one you have the potentials to be leading. You know something is wrong before anyone else, and you know it better than anyone else. And if you are intelligent and aware, that knowledge never leaves you alone. Some people intend to change their life, and may swear to others they will. “Someday,” they say, “I’ll do this and then I’ll do that and things will get better.” But when they cast an honest eye on their life in progress they see certain indications that their life is going wrong, certain clues.

An Inappropriate life

There comes a moment when you realize that you could have just as well have lived a thousand different lives but have lived this one, that you could just as well have taken a thousand different paths but took this one; that perhaps they are the wrong life and the wrong path.

Running Out of Time

From time to time you have to ask yourself if you’ve have made the most of your limited time here on earth. Then in a moment of quiet panic some people realize they haven’t. Entering the Garden of Eden, God called to Adam, “Where art thou.” He was asking Adam to account for himself. We all have to account for ourselves. X days and years of the time allotted to you have passed. How far have you gotten?

Hideouts and Cover Stories

People often go to extreme lengths to fabricate a cover story to explain why they’re not making the most of their lives. They hide out. You know people who are hiding out. You can even recite their cover stories, you’ve heard them so often: “This didn’t work out and that didn’t work out. My luck was bad, and things were so dead set against me. I’m as smart as anyone else, but I didn’t get the breaks.” During moments of clarity they become aware that the best part of themselves has never come out of hiding. They cower behind the cover stories they invented and escape to hideouts. You want to say, “Wake up! Stop hiding. Don’t settle for a crummy life.”

Cancelled Dreams

At some point some people give up and abandon their dreams. They continue the rest of their days recalling how pleasant their dreams once had been. Dreams are frail things that disappear if they aren’t turned to reality.

Inaction

You may be a person of action. If you are, when there’s something to be done, you do it. Hard work is necessary if you are to have the life you deserve, so you work hard. You have purposes to attend to and you attend to them. There are obstacles to conquer, so you conquer them. But this man is paralyzed by inaction. He doubts himself and is afraid. He doesn’t do what’s necessary to improve his life. When he is set back he gives up trying and doesn’t bother anymore. His determination withers away. He can follow routines–up at six, home at six–because routines require no imagination or initiative; no risks, no commitments. But when it comes to stepping out of the familiar stream of daily routine and taking action to make more of his life–changing careers, starting a business, leaving a disappointing life behind, moving to a different place, for example– he’s in over his head, he’s helpless There’s procrastinating over the small things–failing to return a library book on time–and there is procrastinating over the big things–failing to make important life-changing decisions and take action, procrastinating your existence into oblivion.

Disillusionment

There’s supposed to be some vital meaning to our lives. But there comes a time when some people are forced to ask, “Is this all there is?” They realize that their lives have little meaning, and without meaning there isn’t much to life. They long to be breathless with desire for–something, anything.

 Unfulfilled Promise

In high school Kim was somebody. But now she realizes that something somehow happened, and she’s been left behind. She’s nowhere near the bright future that once seemed so clearly, like a beacon, to lie ahead. She can’t shake that off. She lives in the past, in her glory years. She’s snagged; she’s stuck. She makes no progress.

A Mechanical Existence

There’s a saying: “Be sure you’re riding the horse and the horse isn’t riding you.” Some people choose to be ridden by the horse. They’re living all right–their heart is beating and they breathe– but they’re not leading their life at all, but are being led. Their lives are too easy, too predictable, and too uneventful, and are headed nowhere. There’s nothing in store, no excitement, no surprises.

A Phony Life

Many people live one way while their true self urges them to live a truer, more authentic, more suitable way. They often stay busy in a whirlwind of activity that unbeknownst to them is designed to allow no time to stop and ask, “Am I doing the best I can, am I going right, or have I just gotten good at leading a phony existence?”

 Living with White Heat

When you put behind you an inappropriate life, hideouts and cover stories, cancelled dreams, inaction, unfulfilled promise, a mechanical existence, and a phony life and disillusionment and choose to live a decisive style of life, you become committed to your actions with your whole person. You live with white heat. When you decide with your whole being, all that you are and all that you can be and hope to be are right there with you. You throw yourself completely into the decision. You’re in this thing to the end and your commitment knows no bounds. You focus, you bear down. There’s something out of the ordinary about you that people recognize, a seriousness of intent, a rare intensity. You’re not fooling around, you’re deadly serious about your life and its goals, and you’re not run of the mill. You’re a different breed of man, a different breed of woman, and that’s obvious. Your determination is as hard as granite. You’re unbendable. You never deviate from your decisiveness.

We’re born and hurled into the future. What’s unique about you sets you apart and launches you in a direction. Always follow where your gifts, your talents, and your intelligence lead you. You were meant to let yourself be drawn in that direction. Why resist?

A man was curious and attended an art show to ask a famous sculptor if he had advice for his son John, a sculptor who was just beginning. The sculptor said, “Yes I do have advice. It’s very simple. You tell John to pick up his mallet and his chisel and make chips.”

We’d be better off, you and I, if like a sculptor sculpting our own lives, we too made a decision to make chips.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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The Rabbit and the Fox, The Teacher and the Painter, and Other Lessons

Excerpts from Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life

 

 Rabbits

rabbit-40646_640 A wise master and his student were walking through the countryside. The student pointed to a fox chasing a rabbit and said, “Oh, the poor rabbit.”

The master said, “The rabbit will elude the fox.”

The student was surprised. Maybe the old man’s mind wasn’t so sharp anymore. He said, “No, you see, the fox is faster.”

“The rabbit will get away,” repeated the master.

“What makes you think so?”

“Because the fox is running for his dinner, but the rabbit is running for his life.”

The first step is understanding we’re no different than rabbits.

 

Attention, Attention, Attention

 yoga-386611_640A layman asked a Zen master to write some words containing the greatest wisdom.

The master picked up his brush and wrote, “Attention.”

The layman was disappointed. He said, “I was hoping for something more.”

“More?” the master asked, picking up his brush and writing again— this time, “Attention. Attention.”

“That’s it?” asked the layman.

The master had been expecting that. This time he wrote it three times: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”

Your ability to choose how you will direct your attention–what you will think, how you will feel, and the best thing to do–is your most powerful skill.

 

Cherry Blossoms

cherry-blossom-254680_640The delicate cherry blossom has a very short life. It doesn’t last long in the wind that blows it from the tree. One minute it is there, then it is gone. All we have is a memory of how beautiful it was.

No getting around it: I’m a cherry blossom; you’re a cherry blossom.

 

 The Teacher and the Painter

paint-33883_1280My friend is a painter. The best teacher she ever had gave her the best advice she ever received. He looked at her as she painted and said, “You’re being too careful. Make bolder strokes.” He went away. She followed his advice. He came back and studied her work. He raised his voice and said, “Bolder.” Later he came back again and said, even louder, “Bolder! What are you afraid of?”

Our lives would change immensely if we said to ourselves most of the time, “Bolder! What are you afraid of?”

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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The Power of Focus; the Power of Breath: The Doctrine of Ki, Part III

“When you’re afraid, tense the muscles of your stomach and the fear will disappear” Zen adage

(Adapted from Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life by David J. Rogers (Crossroad Press, 2014)

 A Powerfully Built Man and a Little Man

To many Easterners the center of a person’s spirit and strength is a point within the abdominal cavity two inches below the navel. This special point is called the tai ten, tanden, tan-tien, tan, seika-tanden, or simply “the one point.” In addition to being your body’s center of gravity, the one point is also the center of kienergy, spirit, aura, vitality, life force, inner strength.

The one point can be compared to the boiler of a steam engine. When your mind is concentrated on it, energy is created and distributed throughout your body, and your body is able to move quickly and powerfully. Athletes, if they are not already, should be very interested in learning more about ki.

R. E. West, a powerfully built Western black belt judoka (practitioner of judo) who knew very little about ki and the one point, asked an old, 130-pound Japanese master for a demonstration of its power. The two men sat on their knees facing each other. Each placed his right hand on the other’s chest. Hard as West tried, he couldn’t budge the old man. Then the old man gave a slight push and West flew backward. The master then said it was only because of the power in his one point that he could knock West over.

Samurai men and women going into battle concentrated on the one point.

How to Draw the Power of Ki

The way to draw the power of ki is very easy. Just concentrate your mind fully on your one point. Look at your stomach and find the point two inches directly below your navel. Now press it hard with your finger. This will leave a residual feeling of where the one point is. Then simply visualize. Don’t look at it, just imagine it as a point, a dot, and concentrate on it.

Now that you’ve located the one point, practice beginning your everyday actions with your attention on it until it becomes second nature to you. Before starting any task, any task at all, first think of your one point—sitting down at your desk, starting a meeting, going to a party, entering a sales conference, starting a race—whatever. If you devote yourself to concentrating on your one point, it will gradually become a habit. Until it does you will have to remind yourself: “Hey, concentrate on your one point.”

When you’re able to remember to begin at least some of your acts from the one point, become a little more ambitious. Get in the habit of concentrating on the one point when you’re upset or irritated. You’ll find yourself becoming calm and tranquil and strong at the same time.

After you’ve started the habit of one-point concentration, begin to use it during times of more severe tension and nervousness. When you’re troubled and your thoughts and emotions are shooting around like rockets, or you are facing an inner or outer block, concentrate on your one point. When you’re discouraged and are thinking, “This time I’ve reached rock-bottom; everything is against me now,” simply concentrate on your one point. Don’t think of yourself as a discouraged person; think of yourself as a strong person with powerful ki.

Breathing

“If you know the art of breathing you have the strength, wisdom and courage of ten tigers.” Chinese adage

The psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich used the word “streamings” to describe energy in the human body. He said that at times streamings flow, and other times they’re dammed up. They flow when you’re optimistic, when you’re not tense or worried, when your expectations of success are high. When they flow you experience an inner glow. You have a completely new sense of courage and self-confidence. Reich’s concept, “streamings,” may seem strange to some people, but it certainly wouldn’t to the practitioners of ki breathing. He would call it ki and state that what Reich says it does, it does. And modern technology is helping to prove Reich was exactly right.

According to a research project undertaken by M.I.T., there actually is an electrical energy field around the human body, and it can be regulated in exactly the way Easterners regulate it—by breathing in a particular way.

Ki is very closely related to breathing, and that’s why it’s sometimes translated as “breath.” The M.I.T. research demonstrated that the breathing exercises in fact thicken the energy field. Everyone has a ki energy field around him or her, but martial arts practitioners using ki breathing techniques actually have a different kind of field than the average person. Using modern photographic processes, the field can even be seen!

In one of the most dramatic demonstrations of ki, Kirlian photography was used to film karateka Teruyuki Yamada breaking a one-inch board with a ki-powered blow. Now there’s nothing amazing about a punch breaking a board. But it is amazing that the punch never hit the board. Playing the film in very slow motion revealed that the board actually snapped when Yamada’s fist was still an inch away from it. What had shattered the wood was the pressurized force of the ki field between the board and the fist!

Ki is also curative. For centuries Chinese healers have used their knowledge of chi to manipulate its flow in sick patients. Physicians in various Western countries are using electrical energy stimulation to heal a variety of body injuries, often with extraordinary results. Russian sports scientists photograph streams of electrical energy in and around athletes’ bodies, then use lasers to stimulate its flow to heal injuries and treat fatigue and emotional disturbances, such as depression and anxiety.

Deep abdominal, diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to have particular health advantages over “high chest,” shallow breathing. Medical researchers estimate that up to 80 per cent of all diseases are attributable to nervous problems. Worry, nervousness, anxiety, anger, and stress narrow our capillaries and restrict the flow of blood carrying fresh oxygen. By breathing the right way, you can open your capillaries and send oxygen freely throughout your body. Diaphragmatic ki breathing also increases your physical strength. That’s another reason why people are so interested in sanchin, “breathing exercises.”

There is breathing high and breathing low. Westerners breathe high. We are taught “stomach in, chest out.” Our breathing is done high in our chest. Ki breathing is done low. It’s bringing the inhaled air far down in the lungs. In other words, as far as ki development is concerned we have learned to breathe wrong. Right breathing is “chest in, stomach out.” It’s breathing from the abdomen—it’s diaphragmatic breathing.

If you’re conscientious about practicing your ki breathing you may come to breathe this way all the time. Most people, however, even if they don’t forever after breathe in the ki way, use it as an alternative way of breathing. When confronted with disturbing situations, when in trouble or doubt, or when they’re in need of a pick-me-up, they simply drop their normal high chest breathing and launch into deep abdominal ki breathing.

Technique

To prepare yourself to use ki breathing whenever you wish:

-Get in a comfortable, relaxed position—your weight on your legs and feet, lying on your back, or sitting comfortably.

–Concentrate your attention on your one point. Remember it’s the center of gravity point located two inches below your navel. Throughout your ki breathing keep your mind on your one point. When your thoughts wander from it don’t fight them, just gently nudge your attention back to your one point.

–Get rid of the carbon dioxide in your lungs by opening your mouth and making a slow, steady “haaa” sound as you breathe out for ten seconds. When you think you’re out of breath make one last hard “ha.”

–Inhale slowly, evenly and deeply through your nose in one uninterrupted motion taking four or five seconds. Concentrate on bringing your breath far down. Imagine your diaphragm swelling out like a balloon and your breath pressing your one point from inside your stomach. Your breathing should be going on in your diaphragm and not in your chest. Your chest should be moving very little, if at all.

–Your attention still on your one point, and your breath pressing against it, hold your breath for five to ten seconds.

–Then exhale deeply, but slowly and evenly through your mouth. Pull in your abdominal muscle to force out as much carbon dioxide as possible. If you get out of breath just stop and breathe in your usual way for a few seconds. Then start your ki breathing again.

Try to practice this method of ki breathing at least five minutes twice each day. If you set aside time every day for ki breathing you’ll feel the effects of it not only when you’re actually doing it, but throughout the day.

If you’re like a lot of people and twice a day is asking a lot, at least learn how to do your breathing so you can launch into it when you’re upset or unsettled, or when you just feel like it.

It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it and once you do you can do it whenever you wish. When your ki is lively, you react confidently and quickly. If it’s clouded and negative, you hesitate and become awkward and indecisive. Therefore, keep your ki flowing all day long

After you have become accustomed to deep abdominal ki breathing you can do it anywhere—in a cab, on a train, at your desk, while walking down the street, in an elevator. Whenever you need ki simply breathe down to your one point.

Points to Remember Blog Posts I, II, and III: The Doctrine of Ki

–Remember to “Fill yourself with ki.” (Ki o mitasu) Do it as often as you can. In particular, do it to increase your expectations of success and whenever you experience defeat.

–Ki is energy, a frame of mind or attitude, and it’s a force that you communicate to other people.

–Positive ki creates positive power in your actions and positive responses in others. Negative ki creates negative actions and responses.

–Make certain you never forget the personal power formula of shinkiryoku (mind-energy-strength). Your frame of mind determines how much energy you have and the amount of power you live and work with. You can choose how much power you will communicate by choosing what you will think.

–To increase your ki and ryoku power: (1) transmit your ki, (2) concentrate on your one point two inches below your navel, and (3) breathe diaphragmatically.

–The time will come when you realize you have been neglecting your ki development. Whenever that happens, go back to these posts and refresh your memory of how you can increase your ki and ryoku power whenever you want.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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