Plenty of us grew up fearing failure. Some of us even developped an abnormal, persistent fear of failure. It stops us from trying things in life. We’ll settle for mediocrity to avoid the risks inherent in distinguishing ourselves. Because modern society places so much emphasis on perfection in every aspect of life, we’ll often not risk trying until perfection is assured. If this sounds familiar, this post is for you. Keep reading as I try to explain to you the importance of learning to fail if you want to be successful.
Game 7 of a widely contested series. The shot clock is at 20 seconds and it’s a 1 point game. The team’s superstar is dribbling the clock away at the top of the key, waiting just long enough before making his move to be sure that he takes the game’s final shot. The crowd is going crazy in the background. The outcome will determine whether his team’s season ends here or whether they advance to the next round of the playoffs. This is what it’s all about. These are the moments that matter. These are the moments that make up a player’s legacy and that he will play back in his mind time and time again if it goes wrong. What will he do? Will he take the team on his back and force the issue in typical hero-ball fashion? Or will he run a play and make his team’s chances increase by sharing the burden? [Read More...]
Last time we discussed the first step in the Kotter model: (1) create a sense of urgency. This time around, we’ll talk about the second step:(2) form a powerful coalition. Stay tuned for the next part:(3) create a vision for change.
A long time ago I wrote a post on the subject of change management. In this post I tracked the application of the 8 step change model of Kotter to a case study. At the time I had felt firsthand the impact of a poorly managed change. I wanted to understand what management had and hadn’t done in order for this change to be so disruptive for the group. I had been taught the Kotter model in school and tracked the sequence of events according to this model. I linked the outcomes to the degree of success of executing the steps of the model. Studying someone else’s failure is a good way to avoid making the same mistakes.
Things have changed since then and I’ve reached a point in my career where I need to apply those lessons learned. I can no longer stand on the sideline and be cynical. I’m expected to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. As a young manager, I can provide a fresh wind to a business that is confronted with a changing market situation. To start down the right path, the first year I’ve focused on the first part of the Kotter model: creating a climate for change.
Before you start haphazardly writing a book, there are a few decisions to make that are very important. Once you’ve started the project in a certain way, it is difficult or impossible to come back on your decision. Here are a few that I’ve been struggling with so far.
What changed my mind
Writing my doctoral thesis gave me an incredible amount of satisfaction. I’m not so much talking about finishing it but rather about the process itself. I liked the satisfaction of writing something and feeling the progress of the project. I liked the satisfaction of looking at the work in progress and seeing something grow out of nothing. I liked the satisfaction of proof-reading a chapter and feeling like the text was well-written, well-structured and overall not so bad. I want to feel these things again while working on a project that I care more about than my doctoral dissertation. Something tells me writing more books would be a rewarding activity.
When I started looking around the internet to figure out how best to tackle these kind of projects I found some very useful tools and methods that gave me the confidence that I can break this incredibly daunting task into manageable bits.
It starts with mind-mapping your novel which allows you to brainstorm about the different aspects of your story without getting lost in your head and forgetting those brilliant ideas that you had. I broke up the novel into four main categories (characters, plot, settings, timeline) and started fleshing out the details of the book. I managed to capture the shadows of my ideas and write them down in a way that will allow me to tackle the writing in a structured way.
It wasn’t the first time that I mind-mapped a novel but the first attempt was a disaster. I got stuck mind-mapping and never created any structure. In the end the idea for that first novel grew so immense that it could never be written. This time around, I found a more concise plot that allowed me to work on structure much quicker and break it up into chapters. For the first time I saw an actual story-arc that could make sense. I understood much better how to divide things over the timeline and how to make things come full-circle. Even though a lot of the creativity is still ahead of me, at least I’ve created a framework. I know where every chapter begins and ends and I know how much the story needs to progress over a chapter. I’ve created manageable pieces of writing.
I’ve also better understood how to take my writing more seriously. It is important to create a certain habit, to create a fixed timeslot where I sit down and focus on writing this novel. I can spend a lot of time thinking about how I want to write things, researching the necessary details to make a specific scene more plausible and working out the evolution I want my characters to go through… but at fixed times in the week I need to sit down without any distraction and write. I’m not sure yet whether to put a fixed timeslot on those writing sessions or whether to place a fixed word-count on the sessions but from my first session I’ve learned that it’s not always easy to get to a word-count. Probably not putting the bar too high early-on is a good idea. I might just get discouraged otherwise.
Since the girlfriend will be spending parts of her Saturdays taking cooking classes with her friends, I should be able to spend at least an equal amount of time behind my laptop writing. That way we both feel like we’re able to spend our weekends doing what we love even when we’re away from the one we love most.
But most of all I understood the dangerous effect of consuming media rather than creating it. From January onwards I will have a 45-60 minute drive to work every morning. My idea was to listen to podcasts during that time in order to spend those lost hours doing something useful. I think that the better use of my time would however be to think about my story, think about my characters and the way I want to write my novel.
I may occasionally update you on the progress I make in this project. I may occasionally still write a blog post when I want some instant gratification. But hopefully, I will focus my energy on writing a longer piece of fiction in 2013…
Something peculiar happened to me this week. It was early morning on Wednesday 2nd of January 2013. The ominous year 2013 had just begun when I realized I had seemingly just joined a cult.
When I was younger I was always very fascinated by cults and how people joined these things without realizing what they were getting into. The consequences are not necessarily always dramatic but how can you know up front whether you end up as one of those guys going door to door telling the story of Jebus or whether you’d end up committing mass-suicide by drinking the funny juice? Either way, on that particular morning I woke up way too early and started doing what all members of my cult do on a daily basis. I climbed out of bed before the break of dawn and walked away from family and loved ones to get into a metal box.
This metal box is adorned on the outside with four bright sources of light, two white ones at the front and two red ones at the back of the box. Suddenly this box starts travelling as if with a mind of its own, taking me away from the bright lights of the city and into the dark and sleepy countryside. A bright screen indicates my destination on a map and a strange voice warns me of all the turns that are coming up. All along the way more and more members of my cult start joining in, in their very own metal box with their very own destination, their red tail-lights illuminating my face as the endless train of metal boxes starts getting more and more tightly packed.
The train of light cuts up the countryside and beckons more and more people along the way to wake up and walk away from their wife and kids. I don’t quite understand how it does this but I sit there watching in awe as the never-ending stream of boxes keeps growing. Occasionally the train reaches a crossing where it meets another train of light coming from a different part of the country. The people in that train don’t bother greeting me though. They all know what they’re there for and even though they execute their sinister task of breaking up families without complaining, they don’t necessarily like what they do. They have a job to do and none of them expects any kindness from the world in return.
When my box finally came to a standstill at the end of the world, I found there a strange building behind a giant fence. Inside that building, they make a lot of noise and they keep people busy for a full day. Everybody pretends they make a difference and that the world would come to a grinding halt if the train of light didn’t make its early-morning journey through the sleepy countryside of Belgium.
It was a cold and rainy morning on Wednesday 2nd of January and I woke up a commuter.
What stopped me until now?
Short stories or blog posts are a good way to practice writing, a good way to develop a style and a good way to get some visibility and feedback. But they generally don’t require any planning or commitment, any intricate structuring or a consistency of style for more than a few pages. Every new story or post can be a new experiment, a new idea or approach, a new character or persona. Starting a project like a book means sticking with a character, a style and a narrator for a couple hundred pages and that idea scares me. Hell, I have trouble sticking to a language for more than a few blog posts. I’m worried that I am not consistent enough in what I do, that I lose interest, that I change my mind too often.
Character creation and dialogue are two vital aspects of writing a novel. Both aspects are intertwined in fact. Through the years I found that the things I’ve written that I like most myself, generally don’t thrive on the quality of the dialogue or the character creation. In my earlier work I generally only like a particularly fun way I phrase something. In my later work I find that I do a better job of creating an arc or a structure that brings a smile to your face at the end. Rarely though have I taken the time to really work out a character or taken the time to find the right balance between explaining a character and making the character come alive through dialogue. I am still afraid that I have much to learn in that respect.
What they say is to write about what you know… but what I find is that every time I have an idea for a story it consists of things I don’t know much about. It’s situated in a country I am not familiar with, it deals with characters that I have a hard time empathizing with or is occurring in a culture I have trouble understanding. I get too focused on researching those things I don’t know enough about and I don’t get any actual writing done. But what I know doesn’t keep my attention long enough.
Feedback and self-confidence are very important aspects when trying to complete a longer project. I like the fact that blogging offers the potential for immediate feedback. Blogging is very different from writing a novel because when you blog, you don’t reread something a thousand times to check the pacing, the rhythm and the plausibility. You write it, you post it and you wait for feedback. You get it out there quick and if it sucks, you cover it up with the next post and move on. Writing a novel is different because you can’t publish anything until the whole thing is done. You can’t leak bits and pieces to get some feedback. You have to wait and get all of it done. I’ve tried writing and publishing a short story bit by bit before and it doesn’t work. You can’t publish the first part until you’ve finished the whole thing and are absolutely sure that nothing needs to be rewritten afterwards. Rewriting something is so important when you’re working on a novel. The amount of content that you need to check is so much larger that you can’t just put it out there and test the waters. If something seems to work early on you can’t be sure it will still work by the time you finish the novel and you’ve gotten to know your characters much better.
Perseverance is something else that you don’t necessarily need to write a short blog post. You might need it to maintain a blog in general but looking over my track-record over the years, it’s not something I would say I had with respect to writing in my spare time. It’s a different story altogether when I talk about writing my doctoral thesis since that’s something I did full-time. It’s something completely different when you can dedicate your entire energy to writing. But with this novel project, I will have to find the spare energy to write in the evenings after work or in the weekends. That’s something I don’t know I’m capable of doing for an extended period of time. I know myself well enough to know that this will be a difficult task. I’m lazy and my mind is weak in the evenings. I do so much prefer consuming rather than creating after a full day of work…
I love writing. I’ve been writing this blog for years now. I used to love writing creative short stories at school before starting the blog. I enjoyed writing my master thesis, I enjoyed writing my doctoral thesis. And yet all this time I’ve secretly dreamed about writing something bigger.
I talk about it on occasion, but not to everyone. Mostly out of fear that if I keep talking about it without ever actually doing it, people will peg me as a feckless dreamer. The urge to write a longer piece of fiction comes and goes however. Usually it changes as my life gets calmer or busier. It changes with the seasons. It changes with my mood.
And then suddenly another year has passed and I think back to my secret plans for 2012 and I realize I haven’t achieved any of them. For all my thinking and dreaming… I never set a real goal, I never look at it as a project that needs planning, deadlines and deliverables.
That has now changed.
And now Ze Frank will take over for me.
When you know you’ve got something to do today that you don’t like doing, schedule it as early as possible during your day. Get it over with so you can stop dreading it and get something else done or enjoy the rest of your damn day.
This is a recurring problem for me. Both professionally and personally, there are things that I don’t enjoy doing and my instinctive response is to postpone it until the very last moment. I suppose the idea behind it is that maybe, just maybe, if I wait long enough someone else will do it or something else will happen which makes it so I won’t have to do it anymore. It is childish, stupid and very counterproductive. Generally I won’t get anything else done because of the looming specter of that particular task I hate. I will be keeping myself busy with things that aren’t important or worse yet, I’ll be wasting time by finding creative ways to do nothing while taking my mind off of the task at hand (read: watch youtube). Often times the task will involve having to contact someone to get them to do something for me. Mostly my disliking the task is a combination of not liking to call people and not liking to ask for help. I’ve gotten better at it and I don’t allow myself to weasel out of it quite that easily anymore. But regardless of why I dread some particular task, postponing it is rarely a valid solution.
In an effort to make more efficient use of my time both at work and elsewhere, I will learn to schedule those type of tasks early during the day and will resist pushing back the task to a later time.
Since I finished my PhD, I will be starting a new job very soon. January 2nd, I will officially start working in a multinational. For this job, I will have to drive about 100 km’s a day to get to work and back. Compared to being able to walk to work for the last 4 years, that’s going to be quite the adjustment. The way I see it though, it offers me a possibility to do some things I didn’t do before. Driving to work isn’t quite the same as taking the train to work though, so it’s not like I’ll be able to read more books or get any writing done. But on the flipside, I’ll be able to spend two hours a day listening to podcasts.
I’ve been into the whole podcast experience for a while now and although for the most part it’s been podcasts about sports, there’s been time for the occasional science and technology podcast too. Since I only really follow the NBA in terms of sport, there aren’t really any podcasts that fill up two hours a day discussing the games from the previous night. So recently I’ve started the hunt for interesting podcasts to fill up the rest of my free time in the car. If anybody has any good suggestions, please leave them in the comments. I’m interested in a lot of topics so don’t hesitate to propose any podcast you find worth listening to!
I find that the best podcasts generally have at least two contributors. Even though one of the two normally dominates the discussion (almost to the point that it becomes a monologue), it’s important to have somebody to keep the conversation going sometimes. That second person is vital to keep a good dynamic flow of information going. He needs to ask some valid questions to challenge the main speaker, needs to keep him on topic sometimes and needs to keep track of the overall content that was meant to be covered in a podcast. Overall he serves the role of a moderator with only a minor contribution to the actual discussion. Any podcast that finds two people with the right kind of chemistry to generate an interesting discussion, is going to be succesfull.
There was this thing that Frederic used to say to me that would drive me absolutely crazy. After listening to me whine about the lack of progress for half an hour or so, he would shut me up and say something along the lines of: ‘Stop complaining. Everybody goes through the same problems and it’s normal that things go slow.’ I used to get so frustrated when he said that but it’s really quite an appealing idea. And over time it became a thought that kept me warm at night, and sane during the days.
We come in with such ambition, such expectations. We have a fire burning in the pit of our stomach but as reality slowly starts disappointing us and things don’t go quite the way we wanted, that fire consumes us. Slowly but surely the frustration rises and it breaks our spirit and to our dismay we notice that grimy aftertaste every time we catch ourselves saying something a bit more cynical than the day before. Yet every time we voice our frustration, we’re fed this idea that it’s ok to be awesomely mediocre, that it’s normal to have some period of struggle in our PhD’s. Hey everybody goes through it after all. And before soon that becomes the new normal and we give up on trying to change things. We stop trying to rise above the average. We settle for just getting a PhD rather than delivering a PhD that will be remembered, a PhD that will have an impact. We say things like: I’m sorry, Fred, I guess we won’t be sharing a Nobel prize together after all.
And at the same time that we feel our motivation starting to slip away we start looking for people to blame. We start second-guessing our trust in those who guide us. We start noticing much more than before the things that don’t run smoothly. We obsess over the things that go wrong and feed the ugly rumor mill whenever we bloody well can. And in this negative spiral we seem to forget that the opposite of success is not failure… but inertia. The worse is not to do something wrong but to do nothing at all. We lose track of the value of mistakes. Not only those mistakes that we’re so graciously allowed to make ourselves, but also those from the people around us and above us. And believe me, mistakes there were many and even though we often wondered if anybody learned from the mistakes, we seemed to forget that hindsight is always 20/20 and that one day it will be on us to decide. And as we come closer to the end, all we can think of is that soon we can leave all of the mess behind and we will never have to bother with it again… but in reality we’ve stored all of the lessons in a room labeled experience and we’ll be visiting it more often than we think.
And sure enough there is light at the end of the tunnel and we come out on the other side of the tunnel to find a brand new world. And faced with that new world we find that despite everything the fire is still burning. I’ve seen that renewed hunger in the eyes of many of my fellow graduating PhD candidates and I find myself basking in that same ray of sunshine at this very moment. I feel that dormant energy bubbling in the deep, that vast potential for things to come and I want to say to those of you who are still in the shadow that we are more than the sum of our publications, we are more than the sum of our lab books, presentations, posters and patents. This is not our last chance to make a difference, it’s not our last chance to do something extraordinary. Remember that energy you felt when you started and remember that that will always be there for you to draw on whenever you need to. It’s never too late to aspire, it’s never too late to invent, it’s never too late to achieve. And when you do, I’ll consider myself very lucky if our paths were to cross again so we can share our stories.
An interesting starting point for discussion is Jeremy Rifkin’s recent book (The Empathic Civilization) in which he describes two trends throughout history and looks at the correlation between both. On the one hand we have empathy and on the other hand there is entropy. The book is rather long and repetitive but Rifkin is very skilled in explaining the entire thesis in about 10 minutes. I will let him explain it first.
A man goes to the doctor and the doctor asks him, “what can I do for you today? What symptoms do you have?” and so the man explains to the doctor that he’s having these emotional dreams and these dreams are disturbing his sleep. Every time he rouses from one of these dreams, he’s unable to fall asleep again because he’s thinking too much, trying to figure out what the dreams mean. The doctor nods his head and thinks about the man’s problem for a minute before finally saying, “so essentially you’re having trouble sleeping?” The man nods halfheartedly and the doctor takes out his prescription pad to prescribe some sleeping pills. The man thanks the doctor and takes the prescription to the pharmacist. [Read More...]
I have questions for you. They are questions I ask myself too but I won’t be answering them for everyone to read just yet. Not because I don’t want to share but because I want this post to be about you. I want to avoid dragging you to my point of view by my answering the questions. I want to avoid influencing your answers in any way. I might consider updating this post with my answers once I have received a decent number of answers from you.
Yes I am aware I might be waiting a long time.
- Who inspires you and what have you done with that inspiration? Can you avoid the sense of jealousy or the desire to throw your hands up in defeat when you fail to use that inspiration to your satisfaction?
- If money were not an issue, what would you do with your life? What would you do that makes you stop setting goals for the future and will make you happy now and every day from now?
- How many people have you asked these type of questions? How frequently do you bring up the subject to remind them?
I know that passively reading something that spells it all out and spoon-feeds it to you is a lot more entertaining than being asked to think and answer to personal questions… but just realize that this post is for you to do with as you please and any feedback will be considered as a miracle.
A Friday-night train is thundering through the Flemish countryside and I sit insulated from the world by my headphones, uncomfortably squirming in my seat trying to fall asleep. In Brussels-North a black man with crazy eyes gets on and finds a seat diagonally across from me. His crazy eyes make me uncomfortable but luckily my warm blanket of music protects me. The train does not care. It continues to meticulously cut the landscape into two uneven parts. In the sky the clouds and the setting sun play the same division game with bright colors at the top and ominous gray below. As the train goes through a long broad left turn I see lakes reflecting fiery red, yellow and orange making it harder to distinguish up and down, left and right. Every hour a train just like this one will run by here, coming from deep inside the country and ending at the coast. A long week of work is weighing heavy on my shoulders and the walk home from the railway station looms large. This two-hour journey seems to have no end. My life seems to be in limbo, suspended between arrival and departure, stuck in its own form of an uncertainty principle. The only proof of time passing was the seconds ticking away the tracks on the little screen of my iPod-nano. [Read More...]
I’m a fan of conspiracy theories. I like to hear about them because they give me the illusion that it’s possible to control something in this world. A part of it is also linked to why we all like spy stories and movies about political intrigue. Luckily, most of the conspiracy theories aren’t true. There is some basis of truth behind them but at some point the story goes overboard and you have to suspend disbelief. The difficult part is distinguishing where the truth starts and where it ends. [Read More...]
It’s one minute to midnight. The world is rolling with the punches. The masses are swinging wildly with all their might and The Man is waiting for the right timing to use their momentum against them to bring them to their knees. [Read More...]
Not a lazy weekend goes by without me coming up with a new idea for starting a blog. In the beginning I would write them all down, a few times I would even refine the idea and only twice have I actually started a new blog. Both the projects died in infancy (RIP fotonovella and legacy). So why am I having such a hard time at this? [Read More...]