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About 200 years ago, probably on a dark and stormy night, Mary Shelley gave the world Frankenstein. And he’s lived on in our nightmares ever since.
About the same time her husband, an intermittent and tortured poet named Percy, gave us ‘writer’s block’. He described creativity as a fading coal and in one of his most dangerous writings he wrote ‘…and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.’
He set the stage for what would soon come after: the epidemic of Writer’s Block.
The thing is there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Joan Acocella has a great piece on this in the New Yorker, and in it she describes the evolution of Writer’s Block. It turns out Percy’s poem, his writing about getting stuck, spread.
It spread to the poets and then it spread to the novelists. It spread to the psychoanalysts and then it spread to the people writing screenplays, and then and then, and then. So any copywriter, video editor, social media guru, public speaker who’s worth his or her salt, has Writer’s Block.
Cuz that juicy work, the work we seek to do, the work where no one’s telling us how to do it cuz it’s never been done before, that work with the fancy snacks and the big prizes, where there are clients and audiences and partners waiting for us to spend something out of whole cloth, that work, well we get blocked, we get stuck. We get this malady that we’ve given a name to Writer’s Block. And there’s no such thing.
Plumbers don’t get Plumber’s Block. The plumber doesn’t show up at your house when you have a dripping faucet and says: I don’t know, I’m really stuck, I’m blocked, I’m not sure, do you have any whisky?
No, there’s no such thing as Plumber’s Block. There’s no Ditch-Digger’s Block. There’s no Lift-Driver’s Block. Why do writers, do creatives get this magic special exception?
Well I wanna argue you that we don’t deserve it. That it’s not real. That yes, we get stuck, we feel stuck, but the thought that Writer’s Block is something that we actually can’t escape from, that it’s like having a cold or a wart or cancer… I’m not buying it.
I think instead what we are is confused. We’re confused because what we’re really saying is: I don’t have any ideas that are perfectly formed. I don’t have something that I’m sure it’s going to work.
As we get better at our craft, as our reputation increases it gets more and more difficult to overcome this problem, because when you’re coming out of left field, when you’re a longshoreman in San Francisco in the 1930s or 40s and no one’s expecting very much of you, well then you can just write. And Eric Hoffer just wrote.
But once your reputation grows, once it grows, that all of a sudden, we start censoring ourselves. We start wanting a street to continue, we start maximizing in our head the problem of doing it poorly and minimizing the ability to do it well.
So your problem isn’t that you don’t have enough good ideas. Your problem might be that you don’t have enough bad ideas.
Years ago I was fortunate enough to work with the great Isaac Asimov. Isaac was one of the most important science fiction writers of his generation. He pioneered the writings about robots. He figured out how to write space operas. In fact, he wrote 400 books in his career.
He wrote and published 400 books back when there was no Kindle and publishing yourself wasn’t particularly easy.
400 books. How do you do it? I think I said: How’d you do it? He said: It was pretty simple. I have this manual typewriter and every morning I get up at 6:30 and I sit at the typewriter and then I type, and I type until noon. I just type. I keep typing. It doesn’t matter if I type good stuff. It doesn’t matter if I type bad stuff. I keep typing.
And what his subconscious would say to him is: Well, as long as we’ve got the type, we might as well type something worth reading.
And this idea that we are going to be able to create more and more bad work on our way to good work is one way to unlock the myth to get past the stuckness and realize we don’t have a problem with writing, just as we don’t have a problem with talking.
But what we really have a problem with, is being perfect.
Another way to approach it is the Harlan Ellison method. ‘I sell myself but at the highest rates. I don’t take a piss without getting paid for’. Harlan decided that he was a writer for hire and if someone was going to pay him, he was going to do the writing.
It wasn’t about the muse, it wasn’t about what inspiration hit him. It was his job he’s a plumber. Pay the writer, the writer will write for you.
David Mamet has a different approach. David Mamet who created some of the most vivid and memorable plays of our lifetime has had a whole bunch of clunkers in a row, but he keeps writing. Which is exactly is in fact the only way to write a great play. To keep writing. To show up and put the work on the table.
It’s easy to believe that creativity is going to come out us like lightning.
Miles Davis recorded ‘Kind of blue’ in 72 hours. One of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded, suddenly one of the best selling. Three days, done. We look at that and we say to ourselves: Wow! I can’t wait for something like that to hit me. Except…
Except Miles Davis made more than 40 record albums in his career. More than 40. And very few compared to Kind of blue. How could they? That ‘s okay. He did the work. He showed up and he did the work.
Stephen King, one of the greatest writers of our time, goes to writers conferences. He’s paying it forward. And at these conferences up-and-coming authors raise their hand and they say: Stephen King, you are one of the greatest writers of all time, please tell us… what kind of pencil do you use. As if knowing what kind of pencil Stephen King used would help.
What we seek when we are afraid, when we are looking for the way out is reassurance. We want the reassurance of someone telling us everything is going to be okay. The reassurance of knowing how Stephen King does his writing, how Isaac Asimov does his writing, how the screenwriter or that playwright comes up with their ideas.
This is foolish because reassurance is futile. There can never be enough reassurance.
After you’re done at the writers conference you need to go home and sit by yourself and no one is standing there telling you everything is going to be okay. You cannot rely on reassurance because reassurance will let you down.
Instead, we have to learn how to fly. To fly solo. To dig a ditch. To do the plumbing. To come up with the bad ideas on our way to having the insight to tell them apart from the good ideas.
Steve Pressfield calls these emotions ‘Resistance’. Resistance, his term, is the work of the amygdala. That little almond size bitter brain near our brain stem.
The amygdala doesn’t speak English. The amygdala is in charge of fight or flight. The amygdala is what makes a wild animal, a wild animal. And we still have one. It got us here millions of years later, it helped us. It helped us in the jungle and helped us in the savanna. It helped us, yes, in the boardroom.
But the amygdala backfires. It backfires because it has a lot of trouble telling the difference between a saber-tooth tiger and an editor.
It backfires because when it sees danger, it freezes up. It gets our heart racing. And it’s very, very clever. It’s clever in the way it will come up with a thousand ways to avoid doing the thing it is afraid of.
So the job of the creative… two parts. First, she has to expose herself to the world to learn, to see, to understand. The second, she has to dance with the amygdala.
The fear will not go away. The Resistance never goes away.
The more important the work is, the louder it gets. The harder you try to make it go away, the harder and more clever it gets in response.
No, you cannot make it go away. There would never be regular days when you feel like Miles Davis recording Kind of blue. Maybe never is little strong. There will rarely be days like that. Don’t count on them.
Instead, the work is doing it when you don’t feel like it. Doing it when it’s not easy. That waiting an entire lifetime to write that magic paragraph might be fun and easy in that moment but that’s not the work. The work as a professional is different.
Ros and Ben Zander, in their beautiful book ‘The Art of Possibility’ suggest a simple way for us to change our narrative. And the idea is to replace the word ‘but’ with the word ‘and’.
In the example Ros gives: I’m in Florida, I’m on vacation, but it’s raining outside. The ‘but’ ruins everything. You wanted it to be one thing and it’s something else.
That’s, he has pointed out, that’s where suffering lies. When our conception of what’s fair doesn’t match what’s happening. But as Ros points out, we can replace the word ‘but’ with the word ‘and’: I’m in Florida on vacation and it’s raining outside, so I can work on my cooking, I don’t have to go to the beach.
As soon as we embrace the end we can get back to work. I have a deadline tomorrow. I have to write some copy and I’m feeling blocked, so I will write down as many bad ideas as I can. That’s fine. Because now you’re moving forward. You’re sitting at the typewriter and typing. Page after page, after page.
When I was in 9th Grade, they opened a new High School in my town, so I just started a new school in 10th Grade. And when they opened the new school, of course, they had a Soccer Team, and a Football Team, and a Cross Team. But they didn’t have a Quiz Bowl team.
In Buffalo, where I grew up, Quiz Bowl was a big deal every Sunday night on TV. We needed a Quiz Bowl team and I wanted to be on it. So I went to all the trouble of starting the team, finding the advisor, building a little circuit board for the buzzers and everything else, and then we did auditions.
And, of course, at the audition I came in tenth. I didn’t make the team but they let me be the coach. And I understood soon afterwards why I did so poorly and tried out. Cuz I was pretty good at Trivia… I did poorly cuz I had a buzzer management problem.
Here’s the deal: if you want to win on Jeopardy you can’t wait until you’re sure you know the answer. Because by the time you’re sure you know the answer someone else has already buzzed.
The secret of buzzer management is not buzzing when you know the answer, it’s buzzing when you think you might know the answer by the time they call on you.
That second and a half in between the time you buzzed and the time the host calls your name, your brain is working overtime. Your brain dances with the amygdala, figures out it’s better off putting the right idea into the world than it is hiding.
You become more afraid of being blocked than you are of doing the work itself.
So buzzer management is another example of a good habit. That what Writer’s Block really is, is a series of bad habits in fear, piled one at top another.
It’s fictional. We don’t have Writer’s Block. Maybe we feel it but it’s not who we are. We are not blocked. What we are, is afraid.
And that fear, that fear of watching our reputation be frittered away cuz the next thing we gonna do isn’t as good as the last one, that fear of what people would say about us, it gets us into a swizzle, it gets us stuck.
Nike, of course, would like you to ‘Just do it’. Which is easily interpreted as ‘What the hell’, ‘Speed it off’, ‘Get it over with”, ‘Put it out there’. That’s not what they mean.
The idea of shipping your work is not about ‘just’ shipping it. ‘Whatever, what the hell.’ Instead, it’s the idea of ‘merely’ doing it.
Doing it without commentary. Doing it without listening to the whining, the excuses, the complaining. All of the maneuvering the Resistance is doing in the back of your head.
‘Merely do it’ means: Take out your wrench and adjust the pipe. Take out your shovel and dig the ditch.
Merely do it. Sit at the typewriter and write. 4 hours, 5 hours and then get up, you’re done. It’s your job. We’re professionals, and our profession is to create something that matters, to find a way to lead and connect.
It is not as straightforward as factory work. It is not as reliable as factory work. But it’s 500 times better. It’s better because it engages us at a level of humanity, that so many of us have wanted to get their hands on.
Merely ship it. Merely put the idea into the world. Merely arrived with the best that you’ve got right now. It’s probably not perfect. It’s definitely not good enough but we can make it better. You can make it better, but first we must begin.
We cannot persuade ourselves that something has afflicted us. We have afflicted us. We have afflicted ourselves with a narrative. One of impotence. The end of the road. We’re done. No more chances.
It’s not true. All the data shows us it’s not true. We merely have to write. We merely have to create, have to be generous enough to show up with the best work we’ve got right now.
Because once the amygdala, the Resistance, realizes you’re going to ship it anyway, it’ll get its act together, and your work will get better.
So no, please, don’t say to anybody: I have no good ideas. Begin by saying I don’t have enough bad ideas.
I believe that leadership comes from this amazing ability to tell a story and to bring allegory into the equation so that people can see your vision so that they feel emotionally connected to what you were doing.
My question is how do you come up with the different allegories and metaphors that you do, to do this thing to be able to connect with people on such an emotional level. That’s why it would interest me because I believe that that is a really important leadership skill that cannot be underestimated.
Yes, there’s a lot of juiciness in this question because, in fact, human beings are storytelling machines. We almost never tell ourselves facts. We almost never walk away from a situation knowing the exact truth of everything that occurred.
We are lousy eyewitnesses. We are bad at remembering things specifically. But we’re great at stories. We make up stories all the time. We see something happening once, twice, three times and we assume it will happen another time.
The things that we remember from being 3 years old, 7 years old, 12 years old, what we remember are the stories.
Now, a story isn’t Once Upon a Time. A story is not They Lived Happily Ever After. A story is a set of symbols integrated together to create a memory and emotion.
We get tension and then we release the tension. We like analogies and metaphors, because that takes a new thing and hooks it into an old thing.
So, yes, this is where leadership lies. Leadership is the act of getting people to fall in love with a version of the future. One that they hadn’t necessarily considered or believed possible.
If people can’t fall in love with that vision, it’s going to be very hard to get them on your side, to get them to work toward that vision.
In order to lead we tell stories. And the stories that we tell that work, they’re the ones that resonate with people. How to get good at it? Is there a manual? What’s the shortcut?
Well, it turns out that very few people are natural born storytellers. Most of us aren’t able to tell a story well at all, until we’re in our teens. For some people it takes years longer than that.
But here’s what I know. To end up being a great storyteller, you must begin by being a lousy storyteller.
That, showing up again and again with metaphors, with analogies, with examples, with anecdotes, you don’t do it very well, until one day you do it better.
And therefore, we have to invest in telling stories that don’t work. Looking people in the eye and telling them our best version of ourselves, our best version of that event that happened and why they might want to understand it.
Why? It’s a sailboat. Like a watermelon seed. Well, it turns out if you teach sailing long enough to kids about how to sail a 12 foot sailboat, you will discover that if you show them a watermelon seed and hold it in a certain way and take them to the thinking about why a watermelon seed will fly out if you squeeze it between your fingers maybe, just maybe, kids will understand how a sailboat works.
I don’t know who the first person was who invented the watermelon seed sailboat story. It probably wasn’t my friend Michael who I heard teaching that story in 1978. He heard it from someone who heard it from someone.
What I do know is that the act of telling a story poorly is the only method to telling a story well.
Tell your story, see what makes people’s eyes light up, see what engages with them and then find a new story, a true story, a relevant story, a story they can remember and take action on.
Transcription: Maya Vázquez