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Posts Tagged ‘commitment’

Once upon a time I was talking to someone about my writing. And this person said to me, “Yeah, but if you don’t succeed in a year or so, you’d probably quit and try something else, right?”

And I thought to myself, “Wow, we are really not on the same page here. In fact, we are so far apart I don’t know that there’s anything I can do to change that.”

So when I recently read an essay by Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, I was happy to see the following:

“The most defeatist thing I hear is, “I’m going to give it a couple of years.” You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul.”

I don’t know about the “should” in that statement, but for me, the sentiment is true. I’ve been a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing music and lyrics. This impulse to write is so deeply buried in who I am, I don’t have the first idea how I’d extricate it. Nor would I want to.

Because commitment matters. As Elizabeth Bear says, “…to succeed at a thing–a job, a relationship–in the long term, the thing is: You Must Commit, even though commitment is scary.”

I used to joke that I had commitment issues because I like to take a bit of time before I commit. I’m a “stick my toe in the water to test the temperature” kind of person, and then I hesitate at the first step or two of the pool, thinking about how cold the water is and wondering if this is actually a good idea, and then suddenly I rush all the way in, and I’m done. I’m committed.

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I even hesitated a little bit about adopting this cutie.

But the reason I like to take my time is because once I commit, I AM COMMITTED. And I will put everything I have into whatever it is. So being a little cautious at the beginning is an important protective measure.

Do I think this means I make better decisions? I have no idea. It’s part of my temperament, more than anything else. And I still make mistakes, and I still have failures, and I still make commitments I wish I hadn’t made, not because of failure so much as because the price I paid was too high.

Ultimately I think commitment requires a lot of trust: trust in whatever or whoever you’re committing to, yes, but perhaps even more importantly, trust in yourself. Trust that you can be there–really show up–for yourself. Trust that you can brave the storms and survive the failures. Trust that you can keep learning, that you can keep adjusting, that you can keep in touch with the things that matter to you. Trust that you can leave old commitments behind if it is time. Trust, even, that you can keep trusting instead of clamming up so tight it will become impossible to function in an open-hearted way. (Or, if that’s where you are, that you can figure out how to begin opening that heart back up.)

And finally, trust that we can’t always know and yet we must act anyway. None of us know what the future will bring. We can do our research and collect data, we can try things out, we can discuss the pros and cons, but ultimately, at that point of commitment, there is a LEAP. That leap is unavoidable. And it is terrifying. And it is glorious.

So if I had actually answered the question this person had asked me instead of being polite, I would have said, “What? No, are you kidding? I took the leap to write seriously years ago, and so far it has been a fabulous decision. It’s not always easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t know when or if I’ll succeed in the way I want. But NO REGRETS. On the contrary, I feel incredibly lucky to be doing this at all. And I really doubt I’ll stop in a year’s time, whatever happens. I kind of doubt I’ll ever stop. I guess we’ll find out.”

Here’s to that glory.

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The timing was like something out of a novel.

I had reached the end of my patience with dating. I’d had a few fizzles, and I wasn’t even upset anymore as much as I was simply DONE. I looked at my life, and everything else was going really well. It was only dating that was making me unhappy, and I felt less and less incentive to take the time and energy out of all the parts of my life I did like for something that was feeling like a waste of my time.

I wrote “On Dating Fatigue.” On Facebook, one of my college friends suggested I take a break from dating. I replied, and this is a direct quote, “I’m not taking a break per say, but I have taken a step back and am not actively looking.”

Little did I know I’d start dating the man who is now my boyfriend nine days later.

*

To be honest, I didn’t really know what I meant by taking a step back, but I was forced to figure that out a few days later when someone asked me on a date. And I decided it didn’t mean I couldn’t say yes to a date I really wanted to accept, but it did mean I wasn’t going to be making effort to make those invitations happen.

The same day I made this determination, I went to game night. Attending for the first time was Future Boyfriend, who I had met a couple of times prior, always at big parties. But this time, we sat next to each other while we played Resistance, and he tried to convince everyone I was a spy instead of him, and I tried not to flirt with him. As the night wore on, this proved to be more and more difficult, but I was determined! I wasn’t going to make any effort! No flirting allowed!

By the end of the night, despite my best effort to make no effort, my best friend had invited Future Boyfriend to do a puzzle room with us, and I had somehow, with the least effort I’ve ever had to make to do such a thing, arranged for a bunch of us, including Future Boyfriend, to play BSG later in the month. In some circles, this might have been considered a failure of not making effort, but I was secretly pleased.

And also determined to make no further effort.

*

Two days later, Future Boyfriend asked me on a date. A less discerning individual could not have been faulted for thinking it was a Maybe Date, but I knew. It was a date.

I spent the requisite amount of time agonizing over what to wear: something as flattering as possible but also casual because of the whole Maybe Date thing, preferably something that didn’t look like I’d thought about it much at all, and could I get away with a skirt? Because sometimes guys try to take advantage of skirt-wearing on early dates, so it’s always a risk.

I wore the skirt. He was a gentleman. We made it to date two.

After date two, there was another game night. And a puzzle room. And a party. And a sprained toe. And BSG. And rushing Nala to the emergency vet together late at night. And more dates. And some frank conversations.

And eventually, he became my boyfriend, full stop.

*

One might extrapolate from this story that not making effort was a winning strategy.

But one would be wrong about that.

PLOT TWIST

A few months before the above events, I ran into Future Boyfriend at a party. We barely talked, but he sent me a friend request on Facebook, so I invited him to my birthday party. (effort)

Then, in a somewhat uncharacteristic move on my part, I invited him to go to a wedding with me. (effort) But he was busy and couldn’t go.

At my birthday party, I felt like I had no time to talk to anyone. But when I found out he was leaving, I carved out the time to have a short conversation with him. (effort) During the conversation, he mentioned in a few weeks he was going to start coming to game night.

I went to game night. I probably would have gone anyway. But due to my freakish memory, I knew he would be there. (effort?)

Would I have invited him to my birthday and the wedding if he hadn’t sent me a Facebook request? No.

Would I have been there at that game night if I hadn’t known he was going to be there? Maybe…?

Would he have come to my party and game night and asked me on a date if I hadn’t asked him to that wedding? Maybe. Maybe not.

I guess we’ll never know.

*

No, refusing to make effort isn’t some magical answer. Instead, here’s what I take from this: you never know. You never know when and how past efforts may pay off.

So much of being social is about planting seeds. You put the seed in the ground, and if you can, you give it a little sun, a little water, and you wait and see. Sometimes nothing comes of it. Sometimes some shoots begin to emerge from the soil. Sometimes it’s a different kind of plant than you thought it would be. Sometimes it takes more time, and sometimes it takes less.   

And sometimes you get really, really lucky, and the timing is impeccable, and you begin to date someone right when you’ve finally stripped off enough layers to be truly genuine. And they show up, and they match you. And suddenly commitment doesn’t feel like this big, scary, pressured thing.

Instead it feels natural, like something you actually want. And you are even happier than you were before.

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I read some writing advice recently that I think is useful both for writers, and for the people who would like to understand what our lives are like a bit more clearly:

“Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first 10 years. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.”

–ANDRE DUBUS

This is so very true. Nobody cares deeply about my writing except me. Which is why I can be kind of a hard-ass when it comes to my schedule. And why I care so very much about my priorities and goals. Because if I don’t care, that’s it. They will never happen. End of story.

Becoming good at things takes a long time. Even if some of it comes easy to you, it takes a long time, just less of a long time. It took me twelve years to become as good at singing as I wanted to be, and really more like fifteen to get it completely secured. I took off maybe a year during that period of my life, and the rest of the time, I sang and sang and sang some more. Even when I knew I sucked. Particularly when I knew I sucked.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

When I first started writing, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I don’t know if you can be, really, right when you’re starting out. There’s an experimental phase, when you try something out. See if you like it. See if you’re at all good at it. See if it has any meaning to you. See if this is a thing to which you can devote yourself. Because not everything will be. And if it’s not for you, then it’s not only okay to quit but a good idea. This level of commitment is not for everyone.

I noticed the shift when this changed for me. When writing became a true calling. When I realized I’d be writing anyway, even if I couldn’t turn it into a career. When writing became less about the desperation of wanting a particular project to sell and more about doing the work. When the writing became more interesting and all-consuming than what would happen afterwards. When whether this novel sells or not became less important because I’m already thinking about the next several potential novels to write.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t care about my career or that I don’t care about publishing my novels. I do care, and I take the necessary steps towards that goal. But I care about the writing itself more, and knowing this makes doing the business and career stuff much easier. I want to become better not so I will then become published (although that would be great) but because I’m interested in becoming better for its own sake. I no longer have to look for external validation to reinforce my commitment. I’m committed, full stop.

The early stages of becoming a writer are so very much about not quitting. And putting in time and practice, and finishing things. And finding a way to hang in there through the rejection and the failure and the process of becoming better. And falling in love with telling stories, over and over again.

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“The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” – Anne Morriss

My friend posted this quotation on Facebook the other day, and I’ve been thinking ever since about the relationship between commitment, fear, and change.

Commitment is, in a way, about leaning into the fear. Because once we become wholly committed to something, then we have something to lose in a way we didn’t before, and that can be really freaking scary. And commitment is about change, because even if it doesn’t cause any outward differences, it transforms what’s going on inside our minds and hearts. It alters our personal stories.

To commit fully is to feel naked and exposed. It is to drop any facade of insouciance or nonchalance. It is almost a confession, that this, this is something I’ve chosen to pour my heart, my energy, my time, and my passion into.

Commitment doesn’t come with any guarantees of success. If it did, it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting, so raw, so immersive in that which is vulnerable. But it does, as Anne Morriss says, remove our heads as barriers. It allows us to throw ourselves completely into our lives. It allows us to choose the kind of lives about which we can later sit down and write memoirs.

Photo Credit: thomas_sly via Compfight cc

When I think about my life, I realize that I couldn’t have followed through on the really hard things I’ve done without deep commitment. I couldn’t have gotten my college degree or had a senior recital. I couldn’t have moved to London. I couldn’t have started my own business. I couldn’t have become a writer. I couldn’t have engaged on a personal and emotional level with the people who are important to me. And I couldn’t have changed who I am and how I relate to the world.

All of those things involved risk and the chance of failure. All of them allowed the possibility of someone saying no, of things going wrong, of heartache and disappointment and mistakes, of me wimping out. All of them scared me.

When I arrived in London with my two gigantic suitcases, just out of college and with a freshly broken heart, a friend met me at the airport and helped me get to the place I was staying. And then he left, and I sat there, and I thought, “Oh my god, what have I done?” And then I cried. But the next morning I got out of bed and I left my flat and I explored London. Because I was committed to being there and having the richest experience I could, even though I was lonely and scared and didn’t know what I was doing.

There are so many times when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. Commitment helps me lean into the fear and discomfort of that feeling, and do it anyway. If we want to put ourselves out there in the world, if we want to try to do amazing things, I think that kind of commitment is necessary. The commitment gives us the permission we need to really go for it.

Commit and be free. I like that. It’s the kind of complex idea that requires a lot of thought to see the layers of truth it contains.

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I have devoted my life to the pursuit of excellence. The Greeks called this areté, striving for excellence, living up to the best of one’s potential, and facing challenges with courage and persistence. I wanted to be the best student. I wanted to become a skilled singer. I wanted to travel around the world. I wanted to be an effective teacher. And now I want to be a masterful writer.

Areté has been one of the driving forces of my life. I care about people and relationships, I care about my health (only because I can’t get away with being indifferent to it), and I care about excellence. That’s not to say I don’t have other interests, passions, and concerns, but these three things I think about every single day.

Here’s the thing about mastery: it tends to be all-consuming. It requires commitment to make your practice one of the highest priorities in your life. It requires patience and fortitude while you struggle to improve. It requires the willingness to be bad (especially when starting out) and the strength to fail.

J.S. Bach--an undisputed master of musical composition.

Mastery takes time. It’s not easy to achieve, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about (or they’re looking for a snappy headline that will drive page views or book sales). I used to have voice students come in for lessons, expecting to become fabulous singers with a month or two of lessons (and barely any time outside of that devoted to practicing). Guess what? They never became fabulous singers. They learned some basics, and that’s as far as they went. (Strangely, parents understand this about their kids and usually (although not always) insist on more commitment. Adults were by far the most egregious in terms of thinking singing would be an easy skill to acquire.) Sure, some of my students could skate by on their natural skills for a while, only to eventually arrive at the realization that if they wanted serious chops, they’d have to put the effort in.

Mastery takes focus. I’ve always hated it when people ask me what my hobbies are. The question triggers me to think about how I spent my time. For years, the real answer was: I sing in different genres. I play the piano. I love to sight-read. I compose and write songs. I adore musical theater. I think about educational theories and new ways to help my students learn. I think about the psychology of singing.

Nowadays, I write and I read. I analyze and research and think and learn. I go to bookstores and conventions and signings. It’s not that I have no interests outside of writing, but I have to dig deeper to unearth them for casual conversation, and I have a tendency to relate my other interests to writing in one way or another. Have a bad experience? Well, it will be useful for my writing sometime down the line. Like RPGs or theater? Well, they let me study different ways to structure stories. Travel? Broadens my horizons and lets me envision worlds outside my daily one.

Mastery takes diligence. I love this example of Steve Martin. He devoted himself to learning how to perform live comedy and play the banjo. Then he changed over to making movies. Then he changed over to writing fiction. Then he began to focus some more on the banjo again (and won a Grammy for his efforts). The article (which you should go read because it is super interesting) posits that his success is due in no small part to his practice of diligence.

Commitment. Time. Focus. Diligence. And the dream of someday being able to accomplish what you can only imagine right now.

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