Documenting The Journey Of A Man On A Quest For Mindfulness, Peace, and Joy

Category: Writing

On Sabbatical – Week 5: A Week In Costa Rica, Seven Years In The Making

In order to properly write about this week of my life, I need to take us back. Back to the year 2015. But before that, I need to take us back five weeks, to the start of my sabbatical.

GOALS ARE MY WEAPON TO INFLUENCE THE FUTURE

When I left Corporate America in May 2022, one manager told me, in a farewell email, “your super power of breaking down goals and achieving them is beyond impressive.” It’s funny, the power it can have when someone tells you something about yourself. As I reflect on it now, I am someone that has set goals for myself throughout life, but I didn’t particularly consider myself a “goal-oriented person.” Yet, when I look at my track record, I have had the tendency to set up and knock out goals for a good 20 years. I really wanted to go to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Got in. When graduating, I had the goal of going into business for myself. Did it. One lofty business idea I had was creating a large-scale event, from scratch — a free university welcome event to kick off the school year, paid for by sponsors. We estimated 5,000 students would attend. 15,000 students showed up, and our profit margin on the event was about 65%. Later in life, I knew I had the personal life goal of starting a family. Made that happen. During the pandemic I set the goal of running a marathon. Completed it. Each year in my career in sales, I had corporate quotas and personal sales goals. Most years, I either met them or smashed them. I know what SMART Goals are and try to use that framework when writing down lists of goals in my journal. But until the note in that last email from my former manager, it hadn’t really clicked for me as a label, as a trait of mine.

I had never considered myself among the class of people I admire, the “true” goal-oriented legends you read books about, visionary businesspeople or world class athletes who set lofty goals and stop at nothing until those goals are achieved. I read about people who have had success in their pursuits: the ultra marathoner who ran a marathon in every country in the world, the musician who locked himself in his home studio and didn’t come out until the song was fully produced and mastered, the young businessman who turned his tiny magazine into a global media enterprise, the athlete who set their sights on Olympic gold and won it — and I think to myself, “Wow, those people are impressive. They know how to set goals and achieve them, and it’s taken them to incredible heights. I’m just a normal person. I’m not like them.” And while it’s true, I’m not destined for Olympic gold, I now believe I am like them, insofar as I have an ability to set a goal and complete it. This is one of my super powers. How can I be putting this skill to its best use? I guess we will all have to stay tuned as the magic unfolds!

And if that farewell email wasn’t enough, it became evident on our recent visit to Costa Rica that this goal-completing ability really is one of my super powers. And with that, we go back seven years, to the year 2015.

ALL GREATNESS STEMS FROM A VISION

Kristyn and I were discussing the topic of children: whether or not to have them, ideal time, ideal age gap between siblings, and so on. We agreed that one idea we both liked was, at some point down the road, to live, with kids, in a different country. It would help them gain a more global perspective on life, and it would be one heck of an adventure for us all. The details were foggy, but the overall mission was clear — at some point, live with our kids in a different country. Over the next year or two, we had our first child, and then, two years later, our second, and we continued the conversation of where and when we might want to live outside of the United States. A Spanish-speaking destination made the most sense, since Kristyn already spoke decent Spanish, so from the get-go we had our kids in Spanish immersion pre-school. Kristyn had visited Costa Rica with her family as a teenager, and she got her second visit to the country with my family on a Christmas vacation in 2015. We had a most excellent time. So, from our positive experiences in the past, we looked to Costa Rica first as a possible destination for our eventual journey abroad. As I clocked hours of online research about the country, I was not turned off by anything I read and, to the contrary, was only lured in more.

Two people
Together in Costa Rica – December 2015

So, in 2018, we took a reconnaissance trip to Costa Rica’s Guanacaste region, where we visited multiple locations, met with realtors, and toured schools. We rented an AirBnB in a developing area that, from what we could tell on the internet, seemed like it might be a good location for us. But this was our first recon trip. There was no expectation of making any sort of big decisions. The loose idea was that, in the following months, we’d return to Costa Rica, but in a different region, to compare and contrast it with Guanacaste. Or perhaps we would do this recon trip to Guanacaste, realize it wasn’t for us, and plan our next info-gathering excursion to Mexico, Honduras, Spain, or elsewhere.

It was our last day of Guanacaste recon, and some other-worldly intuition, some knowing came over Kristyn, like the ocean washing up on the shore. Inevitable. Confident certainty. Which is particularly odd, since she has been, and still is, the less decisive person in our partnership; when we come to life’s many little crossroads, like what meals we should make for the week or should we wear the blue or the green to our friend’s wedding, I am usually the one to speak up with a quicker decision. But this time, the decisiveness was all Kristyn. She felt a deep sense of clarity. Further recon was futile. This was the place. The time was now.

Guanacaste Recon Trip – December 2018

Over the next four years, two of which were COVID-19 pandemic years, we worked toward the details of where exactly we would live. A plan was coming together, but due to pandemic travel restrictions, we could not return to the country, and even once restrictions were lifted, with vaccines not being approved for children under five (which just changed last week), we weren’t able to go actually see the location where we hope to live in 2023.

And then, in Week 5 of my sabbatical, we saw it. It was everything.

FORESIGHT 20/20

It hit me on the initial walkthrough of the house, not as much on the interior, but outside, on a covered deck, gazing out at a tiny distant sliver of visible Pacific Ocean, with a lush jungly hillside to my right and a rushing river flowing through the tropical forest behind. I felt an onrush of emotion.

Being a man that’s grown up in a patriarchal society, I have a deficiency in emotional intelligence. Feelings are hard. Society did not equip me with the tools, behaviors, and skills to talk about and express my feelings freely. It’s one of the areas of life I have the biggest room to grow. And so, even feeling and being aware of and being able to name “an onrush of emotion” is a starting point. But I’ve practiced some, and in that moment I was able to sit with the emotion, not panic but sit in it enough to allow space. Space for actual tears to form and roll down my cheeks, and space to be able to search the true feeling and name it. And the feeling was… relief. Relief that now the uncertain future is a little more certain. I had less fear of the unknown. This is where we will be living. This is where I will be drinking my daily mug of delicious, Costa Rica-grown coffee. This is the mountainside we’ll wake to every day. This is how the neighborhood howler monkeys sound. Up until then, the steps we had been taking to get closer to moving to Costa Rica all felt a bit like an upside-down, pandemic-infused dream, but in that moment, it all transformed from dream into reality.

So it was this feeling of relief from the ambiguity and fear of an unknown future, and also, after that, a feeling for which I didn’t have a word. So I sat with that, too. And it dawned on me – I was feeling happy, proud of my past self, proud of my past decisions, satisfied with the judgments and vision of the younger me. And it made me think of this phrase – Foresight 20/20.

You know how they say, “Hindsight is 20/20,” meaning that it’s easier to have complete knowledge and understanding about an event after it’s happened? Well, this feeling felt like our Foresight was 20/20, like the younger version of me was smack in the middle of the bullseye of knowing what future me would want. It was an extraordinarily rewarding sensation to have. I want to cultivate more 20/20 foresight.

Along the way, we’ve had moments of doubts. Many. “This is crazy.” “Are we really doing this?” “Are we robbing our children of some ‘better’ education or opportunities?” “How will we know if we still want this 4-5 years from now?” Countless questions more. Doubt. Uncertainty. Fear. Wicked cousins of emotion. I believe the ideal way to handle these feelings is not to avoid them but to go toward them. Stare them in the face. Learn from them what you will. And have the courage to push through them and press onward.

And through faith in those around us, a hint of that courage, more than our fair share of privilege, and a bit of luck, we got to see the result of the vision we’d had seven years ago, in living color. It was an affirmation that the old versions of ourselves could see our future. Something deep within us felt right about this spot, this plan, despite all the reasons why it might not work out. It’s validating and relieving that our old vision has not only come to fruition, but also feels so perfectly in alignment with the four-year-older version of me. To be happy with your past self is one of life’s best feelings, and I now aspire to impress my future self when making decisions. When at a decision crossroad, I ask myself, “Will this make my future self proud? Happy? Satisfied?” My intuition can take it from there.

Together Again in Costa Rica – June 2022

THOUGHTS FROM A WEEK IN COSTA RICA

A FRESH TAKE ON EDUCATION

We took a tour of the kids’ future school. We had already toured this school once on our 2018 recon trip, but now we could take the tour with our school-aged kids so they could see it and understand it for themselves. The school is one of our biggest draws to the area. It’s a bilingual school with half of the students being local Tico’s and the other half being international students from 30 different countries. Classroom sizes are capped at 20-22. They use project-based learning. The school year operates on trimesters with three different breaks throughout the year, rather than one big long break which can cause a mental “summer slide” in the developing mind of a child.

They put on a weekly “Feria” (market) every Wednesday for local merchants and students to sell their goods. We enjoyed being there to experience the Feria; we even had a First Grader give us his sales pitch for the homemade jewelry he had crafted.

Many nearby parents teach at the school. If you are a parent and aren’t a full-time teacher at the school, you are still required to contribute a minimum of 18 hours to the school’s activities throughout the year — a requirement I’m happy to abide.

Oh, and the school has gardens. And chickens. Many chickens! The curriculum includes an annual anchor project, which varies by grade. These anchor projects tend to model sustainability and self-sufficiency, and many anchor projects revolve around the chickens. Fifth Graders learn about and manage the compost at the school as their anchor project. The compost is used in the gardens, which is the Seventh Grade anchor project. The Sixth Graders are in charge of maintaining the chicken coops and feeding the chickens, while the First Graders are in charge of egg collection. Other grades work on recycling, water, and so on.

Everything about this school promotes a more communal integration with the community and with the school’s natural surroundings. This is what school should be. Everywhere.

WHEN DID SOCIETY AGREE EXTRA CLOTHING WAS A GOOD THING?

When we were in Costa Rica, and we were at a private house, with thick trees all around, not another human in sight, with tropical temps — we were naked. A lot. The kids mostly, but us grown-ups too. We saw how happy the little ones were to be free of their soggy bottoms. We wanted that same happiness. And why not? Because it’s not the norm? What’s not natural is putting clothes on when it’s 90 degrees and you have your own pool. It’s sad all the “rules” we think we have to live by. When was the last time the sun kissed your bare bottom? Answer: too long ago.

EMBARRASSING TRAVEL HICCUPS CAN HAVE SILVER LININGS

In our family, I am the planner, especially when it comes to travel. Even though it takes a lot of hours, I enjoy it. I enjoy the tradeoff of doing the work so I can arrange for the travel that I most want. This was a complicated trip, since we not only had international travel with children, but we also had life planning to attend. Meetings to set up. Tours to take. And while 99% of my planning was executed flawlessly, I had one small hiccup. When we finally arrived to the rental car lot (roughly 12 hours and two flights after waking up at 2:30am), I realized I had left my driver’s license at home. My license, which always stays in my wallet, had been removed from my wallet. By me. The day before we left. So that I could bring it to the nearby community beach as ID for our annual summer membership. I knew exactly where it was, sitting in a board short pocket in my bedroom hamper. That information was not especially useful at the current juncture. Kristyn was going to have to be our driver.

I dreaded breaking this news to her. I don’t think it’s most people’s idea of a good time to figure out driving in a foreign country. I felt bad to be burdening her with this responsibility. But it turned out to have the best silver lining ever, because there was actually something more stressful than driving around potholes and helmet-less cyclists biking on shoulder-less roads — handling the simultaneous navigation of those roads with spotty 2G cellular data and the management of two tired, hungry, hot, and curious children. Now that was some sweaty work!

Kristyn has already called “dibs” on driving next time.

WRITING REQUIRES PERIODS OF LIVING LIFE

I thought I would be writing nonstop while we were in Costa Rica this week. Writing down notes about the location and school. Journaling until my hand cramped up from all the inspiration I was feeling. Freewriting incessantly from my creative synapses firing. Instead, I barely wrote anything. I lived. I swam. I cooked. I laughed. If you don’t spend part of your life just living it, you have nothing to write about.

My Sabbatical – Week 4 – Prioritizing Pursuits And Accepting The Truth Of My Actions

A sabbatical is glorious in many ways, and it also has its challenges. With the stripping away of a more rigid daily and weekly structure, with a reduction of commitments and obligations, which grants me additional free time to allocate as I choose, comes a challenge. A challenge of variety, of options, of opportunities, of… open-endedness. There are many endeavors I wish to pursue, and all of them require minutes of the day (although some, such as living more mindfully, can be practiced throughout the day). How to prioritize? I have many goals I want to tackle all at once. I want everything to happen now. I want to be fluent in Spanish. I want to have five songs written and produced. I want five boxes to fill themselves of the stuff we don’t need and donate themselves to places and people that will use them. I want this blog to write itself. There are ten different website updates I want to make to this very site, not to mention the three other websites I want to be building, but each little change takes me ages since everything is a first, and firsts have a steep learning curve. And I know this kind of sounds impossible and “woe is me,” but even though I don’t have a day job right now, even with all those extra hours in the week, it’s still hard to make time for all of these things. Or even half of them! What things make the cut and which get left for later? This is the mental battle of my early sabbatical. 

I’ve noticed, though, that I am making time for certain things. I am preparing (and happily eating) home-cooked food daily. I’ve set up an exercise space in the basement and am getting out on the sand volleyball courts regularly. I am saying “yes” to my kids almost whenever they ask to play with me. Perhaps it turns out that the actions I’m making time for are my top priorities. We are what we do. 

Impromptu scooter ride midday on a weekday, because on sabbatical, Dad says, “Yes!”

One of the goals or tasks I keep writing down on my various lists is the project of purging. I’ve been wanting to purge, purge, purge. Strip things down. Declutter our house. Declutter my mind. But with planning for international travel coming up next week and trying to live slowly and not be too “busy,” I haven’t been making room for big purge projects. However, one thing I have been doing is playing with my kids and being present with them. Maybe that’s a fair trade-off? Maybe that’s what this week of sabbatical is supposed to be about. If I had been on a decluttering spree and grinding away at my laundry list of hobbies, I would have missed the following interaction with my kid.

With a delightfully tactful and simply-stating-an-observation tone, I had commented, loud enough for my kid to hear, on how hard it is to see any portion of the actual wood floor in our playroom. Any parent can relate. The kid stopped, eyed the playroom up and down, and turned their head to me and replied, “Daddy, I think we have too many toys.” Oh, I agree, young one. I agree. And so, without any further prodding or encouragement needed, we purged. Now, it was not the poetic, total toyroom overhaul that it could have been, but together, we picked up stuff and agreed whether it should be shelved or binned. 

And so, by letting go of the perceived need to be self-improving and making progress doing my long list of goals, and simply being a present father with my child, I not only got some decluttering done, but I also had a positive, bonding moment with my child. 

Letting go is getting me where I want to go. 

 

TANGENTIAL PARENTING HACK: If your 4-7 year old kid doesn’t enjoy “picking up” the play room or bedroom, suggest “neating” instead. Our kids all out sprint the other way when we mention picking up a room, but if we neat it, carefully replacing items to their homes ever so delicately and neatly like a member of the royal family might, oh, neating is so much fun! 

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SILENCE

Sunday, June 12, 2022

I messed up earlier today. I intervened when I should have done nothing. Or rather, I spoke instead of silence. Silence is tragically underrated. Silence is where magic happens. A silent lake at night divulges a loon’s call from miles away. Silent, tantric stares with your partner can unlock an unknown depth of intimacy. Silence is where you learn. 

My co-parent and our kids were having a calm, strategic bedtime negotiation around the remaining screen time of the night, and since it was a “Mommy Night” (we trade bedtime nights), I was doing my job, which at that point was to stare out the window and do nothing. Be a fly on the wall. Let what happens, happen. And then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t doing my job. During a pause in the mildly tense but perfectly under control negotiation, I commented that, “this conversation is sure taking a long time,” attempting and failing to imply the logic of, “think of all the minutes of screen time we could have gotten by now had we simply agreed on something and started watching.” I just couldn’t help myself from intervening and trying to help the situation. The thing is, the intent of offering assistance doesn’t make all actions right. And the discomfort I felt in that moment is a me problem. 

Upon conversation with my partner and further reflection, many of my missteps in life stem from an underlying tendency toward perfectionism. A sense of editing and revision to live every moment with maximum efficiency, maximum rightness. Why is that instinct there, to always be improving, always be optimizing, maximizing, even if it doesn’t matter? I have a few ideas, and I’m also jotting it down as a future journal prompt for further unpacking. 

Ultimately, I need to trust my partner to live their own parenting journey. And I need to trust my children to have their own journey. From every stumble, at least I can always learn. 

 

REFLECTION FROM A HAMMOCK: BEING OUTDOORS IS BLISS

Sunday, June 12, 2022 continued…

I had been on such a high to come out in the gazebo tonight and write. I got what felt like a huge breakthrough earlier tonight by taking “one teaspoon more” as I embarked on nighttime cleanup duty, which started out with picking up the front yard while it was still light out. 

When it’s a Mommy Night for bedtime, it’s a Daddy Night for cleanup. I ventured out to pick up the day’s toys, chairs, and miscellanea. I left the camping hammock suspended between our two Eastern White Pines for last. It was a gorgeous Minnesota summer night, and the sun was just about to set over the neighbor’s house to the west. But I had cleanup chores to do and a long list of personal hobbies to pursue after that, so I briskly unclipped the hammock from its straps and had it half packed into its stuff-sack when I froze. I looked up and the pink and orange setting sun and thought to myself, “What the heck are you doing right now? You love sunsets and this weather is lush.” And so rather than charge ahead on my task list, I slowed down, reattached the hammock, and sank in to a reflective meditation by sunset. And laying there, ever so gently rocking back and forth, gazing up at the canopy overhead and the drifting clouds above, I had the following epiphany. 

You can sum up one of my truest pleasures in life in two words: being outdoors.

These are phrases transcribed from the 4:22 Voice Memo I captured on my phone while in that hammock meditation: 

  • “I find myself realizing that being outdoors does bring me joy. It’s as simple as those two words. Being outdoors. … Every time. Every time I’m connecting with nature, it brings this overwhelming sense of peace, where I feel like I can actually… touch my soul, feel my soul.”
  • “It feels… indulgent. Like I’m somehow not deserving of just sitting outside and enjoying the sunset, like I should be doing other, more productive, things. For my family. For myself. But… this is nourishing myself. Just, chillin’ horizontally, on a hammock, with my weight suspended, with a gorgeous sunset, underneath a forest canopy, is… one of the best things there is in life! And I just need to remember that in my day to day. When I’m outdoors, my bucket is getting full.”
  •  (Tangential commentary on the benefits of hammocks): “There’s something about the way a hammock works on your body… because you’re horizontal, because your hips are relieved of any pressure, the opposite of when you’re sitting… because you have this anti-gravity posture, it feels like you’re… cheating, like you’ve found the loophole of physics to allow your body to relax. It’s like the same tranquility of floating in water, but without all the work of paddling and holding your breath, not to mention the needing-to-find-a-spot-to-swim bit.”

I can’t get over how cool it is to be experiencing the recurring theme that slowing down and doing less results in more clarity, more joy, and, paradoxically, more progress

 

MUSIC IS MY MUSE

Sunday, June 12, 2022 concluded…

Eventually, the sun did set, and duty called. It was time to put away the dishes away, so I headed inside and popped in my AirPods. I’m washing, listening to this “Wondewall” remix on SoundCloud, and I’m dancing, quite well I might say, and it’s hitting me, that dancing may be a “tier two” passion of mine. If I’m being honest, I’m no Michael Jackson, but I do have rhythm. I started playing piano at 6 and played until middle/high school, where I transitioned to saxophone. I also played drums in the church youth band. I played a few small-town gigs in a jazz combo. I went on to play in Jazz Band at the University of Minnesota. I’m constantly tapping out percussive beats and improvising goofy song lyrics with my kids. And yeah, when it’s dishes time, I drop in the AirPods and get my dance on. Is there any better way to get the dishes done than to dance with them?

It’s good to acknowledge your strengths. I believe there is huge benefit to leaning into one’s strengths. And as vulnerable as I feel writing this, that I will come across as arrogant, I believe that it’s OK to be proud of my skills and that there is power in naming things, and so I will name that I have a skill of shared rhythm with my kids. Shared rhythm is one of the many concepts I’ve learned from Kristyn, and I believe that it’s an area that I often excel in, and I’m connecting just now that it may be in part because I’m a naturally rhythmic person. Shared rhythm is not necessarily percussive, of course; having a back and forth conversation or going for a walk together are also shared rhythm. But in the literal sense, I can feel things click with the young ones. For example, when my kids ask me to do “Run-Unders” with them, they are referring to me dribbling an extra large yoga ball, in our basement, as high as I can without ricocheting back off the ceiling, in a consistent, steady beat, so they can time out a sprint underneath without getting tagged by the ball. It’s wicked fun, and in the game we share the rhythm of the bouncing ball. (Of course, the huge yoga ball does eventually crash into them, but only when they choose the rhythm of silliness and stopping mid-sprint to let it crash into them, at which point I let go of the old game and pivot to align with the rhythm of silliness.) 

Then it was time to do the dishes for real, not just dance to a remix of Oasis’ crowd-pleasing masterpiece from the 90’s, and I switched over to Spotify. Spotify is one of the few apps I happily pay for every month. It’s a rare subscription bill I look at and am 100% at peace with paying. I absolutely love having the world’s music at my fingertips. Of its many delightful features, Spotify’s algorithm customizes a set of six “Daily Mix” playlists tailored to your listening habits and grouped by an overall “feel,” with “Daily Mix 1” typically being more of your frequently played, go-to songs, with Daily Mix 6 being the collection of the 10 random songs of that one obscure genre you secretly like and rarely, but every so often, listen to. I hadn’t used this feature in a while, and today, Spotify curated the most serendipitously customized “Daily Mix 1” to not only my specific, eclectic taste in music, but did so in a series of 8 or 9 songs in a row that perfectly fit the mold of the mood I wanted to be in. First with a couple blood pumping, foot-stomping jams like “LIGHT” by Parcels and Jungle’s “Smile,” then into a more relaxed, but still toe-tappin bass line of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up – Pt. 1”, and then slower still with a brand new release from Jacob Collier featuring Lizzy McAlpine and John Mayer, “Never Gonna Be Alone”… and as I’m writing this about music, it is really hitting me that music, rhythm, dance… these also are things that make my soul shine through.

Being outdoors, music, good food, family… what more does a man need?

And yet, even as I’m dancing away, synchronizing my dish scrubs and rinses with the beat of some of my favorite tunes by my favorite artists, allowing the rhythms and melodies to take over my body, in my own house… I’m noticing that it’s hard to truly, truly let go, to truly be the wacky, shirtless dish dancer that my soul wants to be. I think up more outrageous dance moves than I actually allow my body to do, even when no one is watching. It’s like there is this deeply rooted fear of judgment of others, fear of doing things someone might judge me for doing, fear of doing something other than what society expects me to do. 

Above all else, I need to allow me to be myself.

 

FINAL THOUGHT 

Writing is hard. I’ve had different pieces of this post written for a while. Procrastination gets the best of me. Steven Pressfield’s “Resistance” is real. It’s easy to find excuses to do anything but simply opening up a blank page and starting to write. Self-judgment. Perfectionism. Resistance takes many forms, and they all get in the way of doing the work. I suppose I am grateful to have made the first step, which is acknowledging their presence and typing this paragraph anyway.

OK, enough yammering, onward to Week 5 – a week in Costa Rica!

 

The 5 Biggest Takeaways from John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4”

There are writers, there are great writers, and then there’s John McPhee. 

Having not read much about writing and the writing process ever in my life, and then reading Draft No. 4, it feels as if I endeavored to learn Spanish by plopping myself down in The Zócalo in the heart Mexico City. 

It would take a lifetime to get on McPhee’s level of creative nonfiction writing, but there are five key takeaways in the book that anyone who writes anything (even emails) can extract and implement today to level up their writing. 

The Significance of Draft No. 4

The first draft is the hardest. Putting words to a blank page is every writer’s plight. 

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. 

 

McPhee says to expect a 4:1 ratio of time between the first draft and the second, third, and fourth drafts combined. If the first draft takes a month, then you should be able to produce drafts two, three, and four within a week. 

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something – anything – out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again – top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.

 

McPhee goes on to remark about “the interstitial time,” the downtime in between writing and editing where even though you aren’t putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, your brain is still at work. 

What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version – if it did not exist – you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind… is working on it twenty-four hours a day, but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun. 

 

The essence of writing is revision. This understanding takes a huge weight off the first draft. There’s no pressure. The first draft is not going to be good. Masters like John McPhee don’t expect it to be good. Know the bar is extremely low on a first draft. Are there words on the page? Your first draft is a success! 

 

Revision

McPhee has encountered many expert editors throughout his career from who he has gleaned several revision processes that work. 

One of these is, when reviewing an early draft, to read it top to bottom and simply circle or highlight any word that seems like it could be improved. Then revisit each of these highlighted words and work out better ones. 

Use a dictionary, not a thesaurus. 

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you. So draw a box around “wad.” Webster: “The cotton or silk obtained from the Syrian swallowwort, formerly cultivated in Egypt and imported to Europe.” Oh. But read on: “A little mass, tuft, or bundle . . . a small, compact heap.” Stet that one.

 

Structure

Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. But that thinking is a little restrictive. Say you’re writing a business story following the life of a high-performing B2B Sales Executive, and in the day you are shadowing the subject, nothing overly exciting happens until 4:45 P.M., when the Sales Exec finally reaches the C-level buyer at one of his biggest prospects on the phone. A meeting is set, the phone call ends, and the Sales Exec packs it in for the day. Will the reader be most engaged if you write this story chronologically, making the reader slog through 80% of the piece before they get to the best part? Perhaps a different structure, one that’s not a straight line, would be best? Maybe you line up an interview with the C-level buyer, and get their perspective from that fateful day. Then you could have parallel stories from each subject’s point of view, ultimately arriving at the moment of truth – the phone call. Now we’ve got something worth reading! 

One of McPhee’s examples about how he used structure to tell the best story involved a bear. Malcolm Harris from The New Republic sums it up well. 

Inspired by the preponderance of natural cycles in the Arctic, McPhee shapes a story about Alaska around a circle. The first half of the arc will take place linearly, progressing from the beginning in the straightforward humanly experienced direction of time. Halfway through, the narrative flashes back to an earlier point, which we follow to the end, which is also the beginning. McPhee’s concern is less a desire to ape the movement of the moon, and more that the trip’s most dramatic event (a grizzly bear encounter) occurs earlier than it would ideally, which is “about three-fifths of the way along, a natural place for a high moment in any dramatic structure.” McPhee makes even the limited power of narrative sound awesome: “You’re a nonfiction writer. You can’t move that bear around like a king’s pawn or a queen’s bishop. But you can, to an important and effective extent, arrange a structure that is completely faithful to fact.” You can’t move bears, but you can move time, and that’s just as good.

 

It Takes As Long As It Takes

Giving yourself deadlines for a good piece of writing has adverse affects on the quality of the writing. This is especially important if the piece requires research, interviews, and observations out in the world.

Say you’re writing a piece about successful Chief Marketing Officers and the daily habits they attribute their success to. You seek out to collect data, making phone calls and lining up interviews with your dream list of subject matter experts. Having read enough similar books and essays, you know you will need at least five CMO’s thoughts to have enough substance for the piece. After many hours of phone calls and attempts, you’ve only been able to interview two people. You told yourself you wanted to get this project done in two weeks, and now one week has already come and gone. Do you press on with just the two sources and hope it will be enough? One path – change the deadline. It takes as long as it takes. Don’t change your vision and plan because of a deadline.

 

Keep an Open Mind to the True Story

Continuing the above example, perhaps one of your two interviewees was particularly colorful, open, illuminating. The interview was supposed to be thirty minutes; it went for two and a half hours. Perhaps she was ultra dialed in to her daily regimen with a laser focus on how each minute of her days are spent. Perhaps, then, the best path forward is to alter the plan for the piece entirely, and write a personal profile on this one CMO. 

The story is what the story is. Your job as the writer is to have eyes open enough to see it. 

 


 

What’s your biggest takeaway from John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4”? What other sources of writing inspiration and knowledge have you found particularly useful? Let me know in the Comments! 

Video, Audio, Text: The Content Producer’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors” Conundrum

If you had to set up Rock, Paper, Scissors rules for a new game called “Video, Audio, Text,” how would you do it? What beats what? 

Text was invented first and has been around the longest. Some pretty important documents are text: the Constitution, the Bible, that one note you got from Gina in 7th grade. Today we see nearly every publication from newspapers to magazines designed as online first, print second, but they are still putting out text to disseminate news, gossip, and information. 

Audio came next, sort of. Humans had been speaking before the written word came about, but it wasn’t until around 1900 when the first radio communication transmission was sent and received. Many people still listen to the radio today, and now we have internet radio, ebooks, and podcasts as wildly popular audio media. 

And then there’s video, the sexiest of the bunch, what with it’s sight, sound, and millions of pixels. Many have said we are now in a Golden Age of television, with more on-demand streaming options launching by the day and binge-watching being readily available like never before. And as the cost for high quality cameras has come down (nearly everyone has a high-def camera in their phone), the playing field of video creation has been leveled. 

In Rock, Paper, Scissors…

  • Rock beats Scissors because Rock is bigger and heavier and smashes the Scissors
  • Scissors beats Paper because that’s precisely what Scissors do
  • And Paper beats Rock because it covers up the Rock like a blanket, smothering it

So in Video, Audio, Text… what beats what? 

It begs a clarifying question. What are we going for here?

Are we looking for which is the:

  • Most fun to create?
  • Most influential medium to society?
  • Easiest to consume?
  • Most likely to convey information you will recall and remember later?
  • Medium of the future, that a hundred years from now the one we expect to have the best chance of still standing and garnering most of our attention? 
  • Least damaging to society? 
  • Best business opportunity for a content producer to venture into? 

There are a lot of ways to evaluate a medium! 

Let’s focus in on the question “Which medium is the best business opportunity for a content producer to venture into?” 

TEXT

Huffington Post is arguably the most popular “blog” or text-based site on the web, getting around 110,000,000 visits per month. SimilarWeb says the average Huffington Post user visits 1.84 pages per visit, so means its average monthly page views are 202,400,000. 

 

VIDEO

T-Series is the biggest YouTube channel, with over 91,000,000 Subscribers as of this writing. In the last 30 days, SocialBlade reports T-Series videos have been viewed 2,772,822,000 times. 

[Insert needle-skipping-on-record-player sound effect.]

2.8 billion views in one month?

 

AUDIO

It turns out, information about podcast downloads and popularity is not that easy to come by. In 2018 Apple released what the top 25 most downloaded podcasts were (like The Joe Rogan Experience, The Daily, Pod Save America, and RadioLab), but with no specific data. My uneducated guess tells me that even the biggest podcast probably doesn’t have as much reach as the biggest blogs, and it most definitely does not come close to YouTube view quantity. 

 

Granted, there are many other factors that go into a content production business plan other than potential reach, such as: 

  • Natural aptitude of the content producer (writing skills v. oral communication v. video production acumen)
  • Cost / overhead to produce
  • Identifying the target audience for the content and aligning their preferences with your content

Perhaps developing a grading rubric is in order to really get this right?

Sometimes attempting to answer one question leads to more questions. That’s when you know you’re on to something. 

 

We can’t wrap this article without answering the not-so-important question of what the rules are of our incredible new game, so I’ve come to a conclusion…

Video beats Audio, because Video has everything that Audio has to offer, and more. 

Audio beats Text, because you can listen to a book in a lot more places and contexts via an audiobook than a written text. 

Text beats Video, because it’s the O.G. medium. Text doesn’t care how sexy Video is, some pretty important documents wouldn’t exist without the written word. 

 

And there you have it. Now I just need one of you out there to help me with the best hand signs for our new, media version of Paper-Rock-Scissors. 

The Secret to Writing Compelling Copy

There is one all-powerful fundamental writing principle that is the only guide you need in creating compelling copy for readers to devour. 

What is that writing principle? 

It’s being employed right here in this article, and you don’t even know it yet. 

Now your mind is racing. “What am I not seeing?” 

It’s right there in front of you. 

Is the secret to keep the reader in suspense? No. 

Is the secret to use short sentences? No. 

Is the secret to use straightforward language so as to not confuse the reader? No. 

The secret to writing compelling copy is:

In one line, entice the reader to read another line. 

In the next line, again entice the reader to read another. 

And so on, until you’ve willfully ushered them through your piece, whether it’s a blog post, an article, an essay, a novel, or an advertisement. 

The Hardest Step is the First One

If you don’t believe the first step is the hardest, watch a one-year-old try to take their first literal step. They try, and try, and fail, and cry, and try, and drool, and fail, over and over and over. But, eventually, magic happens. Something clicks. A plateau is a plateau no more. One step. Maybe two or three. Then more trying and failing. But before long, three steps turn into five turn into ten and all of a sudden you have Usain Bolt gleefully scooting around your house. 

Little ones aren’t told to walk. They aren’t taught to walk. They just learn it. They learn by observation. And they have innate determination to figure it out. 

How can we tap into this drive within us?

Define for yourself a mission, a purpose, a project, a goal – something that you are as motivated to see come to fruition as an infant who desperately wants to be come a toddler. 

Today is the Day I Commit to a Blog Post Every Day

This week is the week I discovered Seth Godin. I had heard of Seth before, seen the blog before… but today, Seth’s wisdom has LANDED. I don’t have a clear “end game” in mind. But something inside – the voice from within – is telling me writing is the right thing to do. I am compelled. 

I love everything I’m reading, hearing, and seeing come out of Seth’s mouth. The “minimum viable audience.” Trust and attention are what matters, and the way to earn both of them is through generosity. So much more. And one thing Seth preaches is what we all should write a blog post every day. 

I’m making this commitment to myself, and to the Internet, right now: I’m publishing a blog post every day. 

I’m tired of waiting for “the moment.” 

I’m done worrying about the writing being perfect. 

I’m through with thinking about “my audience.”

I’m not going to concern myself with all the blogging “tricks” of writing SEO-friendly content, hyperlinking everything, crafting the perfect titles, and following all of Neil Patel’s tips (no offense, Neil, I think you’re incredibly good at what you do). 

I don’t care if I fail, because I know I will learn from it and grow into something better because of it. 

The “Publish” button will now become my friend, not my enemy. 

I’m ready to be vulnerable. 

I’m ready to share. 

I’m ready. 

This blog is for me.

If one day you are reading this, I’m glad it has brought you value, too. 

I will write the things that I want to see in the world. The things that will give me value. The things I wish there were more of. The things that bring me joy and make me laugh. That will be enough. 

I want my existence to make a positive impact. That impact starts right now. 

I want my children and their children to be able to look back at the archives and see what kind of a ruckus their old man was stirring up. 

I’m on inspiration overload reading and watching content from people like Tim Ferriss, Tony Robbins, Seth Godin, Marie Forleo, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Gary Vaynerchuk. I feel like I have inspiration bursting at the seems. There’s no other place for me to channel this inspiration than right here. 

While this blog is for me, I want it to be about you. I want to provide value to you. I don’t know exactly how yet. But I’m committed to figuring it out.

Here’s a question I just asked myself while journaling and the four answers to it I came up with. 

“What dent do I want to make in the universe?”

  • Better the environment for the generations ahead.
  • Make marketing better. Improve the profession and improve what we see as consumers. Less noise. More relevancy. Better attribution. 
  • Help everyone lead more productive and fulfilling lives. 
  • Reduce the amount of stuff we all use and think we need (i.e. embrace minimalism). 

I expect future writings and works will embark upon some version of one of these directions. 

I’m excited to see what tomorrow brings!

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