Bad Research example: Trump’s Media Survey

This is an example of how to analyze research as related to my blog post Recognizing Bad Social Research or News Articles.

I swear I’ll analyze good examples too! But the bad ones are just such fun. 🙂

The other day I read a survey on Trump’s website that hurt my soul. It is leading, biased, confusing, and faulty.

Let’s start with the good (it won’t take very long).


The Good

Some of the questions have these choices:

  • Yes
  • No
  • No opinion

Having no opinion as an option is good (but many of the questions needed a more rigorous scale, this is so black and white they don’t allow for a spectrum of emotions. Darn it I said I would do the good first!)

  • Which television source do you primarily get your news from?

A simple data gathering question. It needed more options though.

  • “Do you use a source not listed above?”

Hey! An other box. So that people can indicate other  news sources. (Pity it doesn’t let you answer the same questions about the news sources you added. It should also be written as “If any, what other news sources do you get your news from?” I’m a stickler for thoroughness.)


The Ugly

We’re skipping the bad on this one folks.

The biggest problem with this survey is black and white absolutism. It features a strong “Us vs. Them” and “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality that is quite alarming. People’s opinions exist in a broad spectrum. Research methods should account for that. They often allow the “neutral” (no opinion) but rarely allow the “other.” This is a breaking of my research rule #2:

2. Did they ask non-biased and unleading questions which allow for neutral and other opinions? Did they observe the subjects in a way that minimally effected their behavior? (Research Methods)

The questions also group the media (a broad range of people, organizations, and opinions) into one single entity. Making answering the majority of the questions quite awkward.



Another problem is recruiting. They are not following my research rule #1:

1. Did they recruit enough people from all appropriate groups to represent the population? (Recruiting)

If the black and white doesn’t turn people off, then the length will. How is this getting distributed? A link on a site? A select email list? They aren’t offering any money to finish so only those with an extreme vested interest (for or against) will take it. The sample of people who eventually finish this survey is not representative of the American population.



Now into a little nitty gritty, I tried to find the worst offenders. I could write a page on each question, but I shall refrain.

  • Do you trust [Insert news agency] to report fairly on Trump’s presidency?

This should be a matrix table, “How much do you trust the following news sources?” (Mentioning Trump is biasing it, if they trust the news source, they trust them to report accurately on Trump’s Presidency).

Fairness is often used instead of accuracy. They are not concerned about the news agency’s accuracy, just if they talk nice.

  • On which issues does the mainstream media do the worst job of representing Republicans? (Select as many that apply.)

Oh, let me count the ways. It should be “How well does the mainstream media represent republicans in the following areas:” Even that I don’t like, because it lumps republicans in all together as if they are carbon copies of each other. It doesn’t allow for people to think the media is doing well. Their data will only tell them how many people were negative, not how many were neutral or positive or no opinion!

  • Do you trust the mainstream media to tell the truth about the Republican Party’s positions and actions?

BTW, who the heck is this mainstream media? Is that Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? The TV? What? They start asking these questions without making sure that the respondent understands exactly who they mean by “mainstream media.”

My hurt brains so much right now.

  • Do you believe that the mainstream media does not do their due diligence fact-checking before publishing stories on the Trump administration?

Ah the double-negative triple pirouette. Double negatives, does selecting no mean “No, I do not believe that the mainstream media does not do…” Oh sheesh. The poor respondent is getting a headache!

  • Do you believe that the media unfairly reported on President Trump’s executive order temporarily restricting people entering our country from nations compromised by radical Islamic terrorism?

That question is very biased. It is attempting to make the respondent feel like if they agree with the media in any way, they want to endanger our nation from the radical islamic terrorists. It should have been an open-ended written this way:

  • Do you believe that the media inaccurately reported on President Trump’s executive order temporarily restricting people entering our country from (names of countries)?

It should also link to the text of the order.

  • Were you aware that a poll was released revealing that a majority of Americans actually supported President Trump’s temporary restriction executive order?

Wow. This question is serving as a report of prior research. Can I get a link to that research? And that poll revealed that a majority of Americans POLLED supported etc. I’d want to see their recruiting method. This mini-report breaks my rule #3 of research:

3. Did they report on the data itself or extrapolate it to say more than it said and ramble on with their opinions? (Reporting)

  • Do you believe that political correctness has created biased news coverage on both illegal immigration and radical Islamic terrorism?

They throw words around with very subjective meanings (like political correctness). Should be asking separate questions about illegal immigration and radical Islamic terrorism. Also, by putting them in the same question, they imply a connection (some say there is a connection, some not, that’s some other research I personally need to look into).

  • Do you believe that contrary to what the media says, raising taxes does not create jobs?

Ok, they’re asking about belief now (good). But it should be written as such:

Do you believe that raising taxes does not create jobs?

Also, huh? Darn. It’s still biased. We’ve got the double-negatives again too.

  • Do you believe that the media wrongly attributes gun violence to Second Amendment rights?

Because if you don’t you’re wrong! That’s what this is implying. I’m done rewriting this survey because if they were my client I’d be going back to them to ask what are the high-level research questions they have, what do they really want to know? How much does the public believe the media?

This survey, if it were meant for understanding rather than generating ammunition for political debates, should be written to understand the opinions the public has about the news, their demographics, and it should be recruited in such a way to get the best representation.

BTW, what the heck does “Our Movement” mean? Republicans? Trump? Conservatives?

Redundancy is a huge problem with this survey. The next series of questions essentially asks “Do you believe the media does evil things to try to stop us holy warriors of truth and justice?” in one way or another.

  • Do you believe that the mainstream media has been too eager to jump to conclusions about rumored stories?

This is actually decent, it should also be a how much though.

  • Do you believe that if Republicans were obstructing Obama like Democrats are doing to President Trump, the mainstream media would attack Republicans?

More us vs. them.

  • Do you believe that the media uses slurs rather than facts to attack conservative stances on issues like border control, religious liberties, and ObamaCare?

I also don’t appreciate them tying religious liberties to things like border control. Another example of absolutism. Let every person be an individual. Not a cookie cutter. This survey was designed for extremist Republicans to back up extremist Republicans.


End Questions

A few questions at the end are shifted toward how they feel about Trump’s method of communicating with the people, but does it in a way that makes him seem like a holy warrior.

  • Do you agree with President Trump’s media strategy to cut through the media’s noise and deliver our message straight to the people?

A good thing to try and found out, but questions should be written more objectively. “The almighty Thor cuts through the media noise to rescue the people!” Oh dear. Flair and drama do not belong in surveys.

  • Do you agree with the President’s decision to break with tradition by giving lesser known reporters and bloggers the chance to ask the White House Press Secretary questions?

How were these selected? Links please. Orient your respondent before you ask them questions.

At the end, it asks for Name, Email, and Zip code. They really should be asking questions about age, gender, ethnicity (location is still good), and socioeconomic status. And if at the end not all populations are represented, conduct more research.



Can’t really write on reporting yet, but you can tell that from the way this survey was worded, the report is going to be quite biased in a lot of ways.



I’m very concerned that political research is biased all around. They should be hiring outside agencies to write their surveys, analyze the data, and report back to them. The objective should be to get an accurate view of the people, not have a blunt weapon to argue with (such and such biased research said such and such!).

Hope you found this analysis enlightening. Remember, bad data is worse than no data at all!

BTW, if you have concerns about this being a republican-focused survey, please send me a democrat-focused survey. I will gladly analyze that as well. Both parties are guilty of biased research methods.


-Thomas Fawkes


Recognizing Bad Social Research or News Articles

If you don’t have the time to read the whole article, ask yourself these questions every time you read some research or a news article:

  1. Did they recruit enough people from all appropriate groups to represent the population? (Recruiting)

  2. Did they ask non-biased and unleading questions which allow for neutral and other opinions? Did they observe the subjects in a way that minimally effected their behavior? (Research Methods)

  3. Did they report on the data itself or extrapolate it to say more than it said and ramble on with their opinions? (Reporting)


Now, for the meat:

We often use research (surveys, interviews, news articles) to evaluate our beliefs (or to prove a point). Much research out there in the world is faulty, biased, or lacking in very vital ways. Not a great way to educate yourself!

Since I’m a researcher by trade, I thought I’d put together a basic guide to analyzing the value of research. This is mainly with practical or social research, rather than scientific research (some principles still apply).

The first thing to remember is that research only says what it says and nothing more. When a report says “40% of Americans hate puppies” it really means “40% of Americans surveyed hate puppies.” Stark contrast there. Think about it.

The next important things to remember are:

  • Just because you agree with the research, doesn’t mean they had good research methods
  • Just because you disagree with the research, doesn’t mean they had poor research methods.
  • Just because they had poor research methods, doesn’t mean the result is wrong (it does mean the research is not a good reason to inform your beliefs).

The rest of this article is divided into 3 sections which reflect the three major phases of social research:

  1. Sources
  2. Research Methods
  3. Reporting


1. Sources-Getting the people

How many

When researching a certain population, one needs to get a good representation of all target audience groups (ages, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, region. Census data and other pre-research helps you know who these groups are).

The people that you choose to research are your sample. There’s a lot of math out there as to how many you need in a sample, but the important thing to note is that you need a good number of randomly selected people from each audience group.

How recruited or chosen

Every recruitment method has its drawbacks.

There are people who won’t take a phone survey, an email survey, or a pop-up survey. Ever. If these people are excluded, you’re skewing your results. People who are likely to ignore a survey are also likely to have certain opinions that needs to be in the research.

Money can get more of those people to participate. So, beware of research that is conducted for free, they only get the opinions of the really nice or the really opinionated.

Also, beware of research that uses only one recruiting method. If they only do phone invites, then they only get people who have phone #’s the researchers have access to (or people who have phones at all if the phone-less are potentially one of their target groups!).


2. Research Methods-Gathering the data

There are two main types of data you can gather: behavioral data and opinion data. Beware of research that tries to learn people’s behavior through questioning rather than observation. People don’t usually have an accurate picture of what they actually do or what they would do (we have distorted memories and high opinions of our hypothetical selves).

People will often say one thing and do another.

Behavioral research is best done through observation. This can be done in-person, through video footage, or even website analytics data (the measure that they know they’re being watched will change their behavior, beware!).

Opinion based research is best done through questioning. And OH BOY do people go wrong here! I’ve seen surveys with the equivalent of “Here is this really great thing, how great do you think it is?” with the following three options:

  • Pretty great!
  • Super great!
  • Extremely great!

I’m exaggerating. Slighty. But sheesh! My job day in and day out is to take the biased, leading, confusing, and faulty questions from my clients and translate them into actually usable questions.

If the research doesn’t let you in on the wording of their questions when presenting results, beware.

Questions might be leading or choices for answers do not represent all possibilities. It’s important that surveys have a neutral option in order to allow for those people who really don’t give a darn to not give a darn!

I was talking to Howard Tayler on Twitter about survey question writing when he offered this as an example:


Do you see the problems in it? It’s cramming multiple responses into one choice. A terribly worded on at that. He offered this as his fix as a funny but equally biased alternative:


The sad thing is, I could expect an extremist democrat to actually put this wording in their version of this survey (Howard Tayler is certainly not an extremist, but a writer of science fiction and comedy).

One-on-one interviews (often used by journalists and news sources) answer questions deeply but not broadly, they get into the nitty gritty of a certain thought, but not into how many people think such a thing.


3. Reporting-Interpreting and publishing the data

This is likely the most important, since this is what most of us see when investigating a certain body of research. The important thing to remember (and beware if the reporting doesn’t say this) is that:

“Research only says what it says and nothing more.”

Feel free to repeat that a few times. 😛

How much is taken directly from the data, and how much is opinion?

When a report is filled with X number of participants indicated Y, you know that’s at least decent data. But, beware when only a few lines of the report are associated with the findings of the data and the rest is paragraphs and paragraphs of opinion, speculation, and broad exaggeration.



The biggest example in recent memory is the polls on who people were voting for last election season. The people who were likely to fill out or answer the polls (mainly Clinton voters) were not representative of those who showed up to vote (a lot more Trump voters than the polls).

Here are three examples of types of research I’ve encountered recently:

The news article

Mwahaha! The worst of the worst! A journalist will often handpick a few select individuals, often to prove a point or that they anticipate will agree with what they want to say (not representative of the population), they will then asked biased and leading questions, then will choose what they want to report (in or out of context), and will fill their article with paragraphs of speculation and opinion.

Not a good way to get data! Not all journalists are like this, and most aren’t trying to be faulty, but when accuracy is traded for speed, you have a holey target with nothing in the bullseye.

The phone survey

Ah, the phone survey. Have any of you gotten a call for a political survey? How many of your took it? How did you feel on the subject if you took it? Many don’t like taking these surveys, and many don’t offer any compensation, greatly decreasing the likelihood of good representation.

The intercept survey

The pop-up appears and through analytics we know how many see it and how many click x. Those who are likely to click on it are (like I mentioned before) either the really nice or the really angry. And having people at both extremes does NOT average out to an accurate representation.


No data is perfect

Every piece of research should have a list of cautions, exceptions, and caveats. No research is perfect. And one survey or set of interviews is never sufficient to fully understand a problem. Beware those who use one chart to describe the state of a nation. The data is always more complicated than that, and people are more complicated than that.

If you learn one thing from this, it is to take every bit of research with a grain of salt, and sometimes a gallon. Because bad data can be worse than no data at all.

Bad data can mislead you into a false sense of confidence in something that might not be true.



-Thomas Fawkes

I live for every spare moment with my wife

Are other people unhappy in their marriages? Because I feel like some are. Perhaps this is an emotionally charged rant, but there is some truth in it. Maybe people have different relationships that work for them (or that they think work for them). But, here we go:

I don’t understand why everyone wants to plan things and invite me but not necessarily my wife. I’ve had people say to me “Well, why can’t you spend a little time without your wife? or “Why can’t you go do this crazy fun thing that’s not really fun to do with kids and isn’t easy to do with kids?” (ok, that’s not how they word it). 

My wife is my best friend. Therefore I spend as much time with her as possible (between kids and work this isn’t alot). I don’t just ditch her and play cause raising children is “women’s work” so I’m always going to want to figure out how to include her and probably the kids into whatever extra activities occur. 

I really appreciate my friends wanting me to come hang out with them, and I definitely want to, I just want to figure out how to include my best friend (my wife). 

People will do the same to my wife and ask her to leave and go and have girls nights or some  church-related activity 5 times a week (slight exaggeration). It’s not that I’m not willing to watch the kids, and I have done so that she can go do something. But people treat me and her  the same way. They look at us funny when we say “well, when I have time off I kind of like to spend it with my wife/husband.” 

This occurs more with single people. Having a life style where two people try to become one and share in all they do is a little foreign to them. I understand that. The concept is different and that’s ok that they don’t just automatically understand that (hopefully it’s less foreign after reading this blog post). I do sometimes feel that if we weren’t married, people wouldn’t think it so odd that we want to spend all this time together! As if it is less odd to want to spend every spare moment with a friend instead of your eternal companion! 

But so many others are married but they don’t seem to want to be around each other.

It’s like they don’t understand why I want to spend every spare moment I can with my wife. She’s my best friend. She’s the love of my life. They don’t seem to get it.

I can’t understand how people can have both husband and wife work different schedules and therefore never get to see each other. I don’t get how they can live like that. Time with my wife is one of those rewards of life that I value above all others. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t have friends. That doesn’t mean I don’t like spending time with them. But what it means is that my family members are my most important friends. And that’s ok.

I just wish people would accept the fact that since I want to spend time with my wife as much as I can that it does not mean I am a slave. It does not mean I am attached to a ball and chain. It doesn’t mean I don’t have freedom. It just means that I like her the most. It means that she is my favorite person to be with and if I can’t do things with my wife, then I’m not sure if I want to do them. I don’t think that I agree with the idea that husband and wife should have their own lives. Why the heck did you get married if you don’t want to be together? This might work for some, but often I just think people only think it’s working for them. Time will tell. 

Friends and family are all important. But my time is limited. And my best friend just spent all day with the crazy kids and I don’t know if I want to give up that almost one hour of one-on-one time with her. 

Just a little rant from Thomas. Peace, love, and all that jazz. 


Just keep learning the craft

The third in my just keep series is in some ways an extension of “just keep reading” because part of “just keep learning the craft” is “just keep reading about writing” (lots of grammar, editing, and how-to books). It also involves experimentation and getting feedback.

This step is how you transition from just a writer to a writer that keeps getting better. This separates the on-their-ways from the wannabes. 

The easiest part of this is to incorporate a steady diet of “how to write” content. You don’t want to inhale it, and you don’t have to accept everything you read as gospel, but as you read about writing your brain will start to fill with good techniques and you will think more critically about your writing.

I’ve read a LOT of how-to content. A few writers and how-to’s that are great to start with are:

That doesn’t even scratch the surface (my gosh I’ve read so many!). You definitely want to learn the tense and point of view  (POV) you’ve picked to write in (if “third-person limited past” doesn’t make sense to you, you better get reading). The point is not to read 100 how to write books and/or make a checklist of things you must read/learn before you can write, the point is to develop a consist habit of learning the craft. Be journey minded, not destination minded (that advice is useful everywhere).

One other great thing is that I reach a point when I’m sick of reading about writing and I scramble to my computer to get out my own words. It builds up until I can’t wait any longer. Others might not get this effect, but I do.

On degrees and classes… I say beware spending money on something that you could get for free. You can learn online for free. And practice is more important than study and that’s free too. Practice is one of the greatest tools to learning, and you can’t throw money at writing and expect to get good without practice. And much that you could learn in college about writing you could learn online.

Degrees are great for creating an external force to make you write, but sheesh that’s some expensive motivation! Maybe you could just work on building a good habit, or join a writing group where you have to turn something in weekly (writing groups are great for this, and I’ll do a post on those soon).

My college experience was not the greatest. Much of what I learned I could have taught myself (I have an English degree). I had one class on grammar that was absolutely revolutionary, but apart from that, yuck.

The most important thing to get from this post is this: consistently read how-to content, experiment with new things often, and read your fiction with a critical eye. Over years, you will find the principles and methods which help you to be a greater writer.

Go forth and have no fear!


You can’t choose to be perfect on your own

We do not have the self-contained ability to be perfect. Does our agency give us the ability to be perfect? No. It might technically give us the option, but it does not give us the power nor the knowledge.

Could Peter have chosen not to doubt when he started to sink? Technically yes, but he didn’t. And I think he really couldn’t have. He is human. He is weak. His lack of strength made him lack the drive to choose perfect faith in that moment.

Christ, when he was born, was not complete nor perfect. But, he lacked all of our inherent weaknesses and had within him every possible strength. At least the strength of perfectly relying on God. And in that strength, he only made right choices.

You will make mistakes. Remember that because you are weak, a human, and NOT a God, mistakes are inevitable. As you rely on God and continue to strive to make better choices, you will be more able to avoid mistakes. But until you are perfect they will always be there. Not because you are wicked and malicious, but because you are human. There are moments when your agency will not be enough to overcome your frailty and you will do wrong.

You can build up strength now through prayer and effort to avoid some future mistakes, but the best strategy is to not let past mistakes bother you, instead use your energy to repair the damage and to prevent future errors.

My son, perhaps technically, has the right to choose to speak perfectly, but not the ability nor the knowledge. He has no external restriction placed upon him, only internal. 

We can’t just choose to be perfect. We can choose to rely on god, and then his knowledge and power will help us to slowly go through our metamorphosis. To use this cocoon of life and hardship, and to emerge as something greater.


Do you like or share without actually reading? 

Why do people “like” articles without reading them? They read the title, or see the featured meme, and just give it a like without knowing the full extent of what they have just promoted.

I had one blog post for which I used a cute meme for the featured image and I noticed that it got many more likes than the blog post where I simply posted a link alone without a picture. I think many, on first glance, thought I was only sharing a meme. And therefore liked it.

I was excited that so many had liked the last post, but I didn’t want them to like the cute cartoon, I wanted them to read the blog post! So I decided I’d rather have less interactions that are more meaningful. People don’t mistake it for a meme if the picture on my blog post has no words.

I don’t want my blog post to get shared through the like-osphere and never get actually read!

I fear that that happens a lot. People like and share articles based on the picture or title alone and most don’t read the article itself. This blog post about Bernie Sanders becoming president through a weird loophole talks all about this.

You can chart out a whole network of people who shared that article and only a tiny percentage read it. How many articles suffer the same fate?

Don’t be a shallow sharer. Share less. Read more. Think more. Social Media is shallow enough. Dive deep. Learn more. Then share only what is truly valuable.

Go forth and be epic!


How to keep working when you feel burned out

I have a theory that there are (at least) 2 types of work. This theory has been stewing in my head for a few months, and I’ve recently tried putting it into effect. I think it works for me!

The first type is more commonly known and understood. I’ll call it exhale work. It’s when you put forth outward work, expelling energy and effort out from within yourself to some external thing. Hammering in a nail, speaking on a phone call, or typing up a report are all forms of this exhale work.

But often I’ll have times where I have a super productive 4 hours and get a lot done, but dang I need a break! Even after a 15 minute break or a 30 minute lunch, my brain is still sore.

So what do I do? I can’t just take the rest of the day off. That next report is due soon! It’s like I’ve just let out a very long breath and now I need to breath in!

The same can happen with creative work. You can only output so much before you need more input. And you can only breath in (read or watch shows) so much before you have to breath out again (write/create).

That creative analogy holds the key. I can’t have my output be writing fiction and my input is eating a sandwich (that had a very different output). Therefore I can’t expect to output research reports if my input is a YouTube video.

Now legitimate breaks have their time and place (hey man, I didn’t say the breathing metaphor was perfect). Sometimes you need to be not working at all (that’s why it’s the law to have two 15 minute breaks and one  30 minute lunch in a standard 8 hour work day), but I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about eating calories before you output physical effort. I’m talking about reading the minutes before planning the next meeting, I’m talking about casually reviewing your boss’s comments on your report before revising it.

I’m talking about inputting the raw data into myself, in a calm and stress-free fashion, with no thought of output but only thought of input. 

It’s the type of work that keeps you at the station, it uses less energy as you’re trying to recover, and it helps you keep your momentum, like jogging or walking for a few minutes when you are out on a long run.

You have to know the difference between inhale work, exhale work, a break, and a false progress activity.

The other day I thought I was doing a type of inhale work but was really doing a false progress activity. I was working on one report and didn’t want to use my brain, so I decided to just make tons of charts to “get started.” It took me hours. It turns out that when I make a conscious and strategic decision of how to present all of the data (what to not include at all, what to mention in a simple sentence, and what to put in a chart) that the work is harder mentally, but much shorter. I make real progress on outputting the report.

I have to make sure that my working breaks are motivated by exhaustion rather than laziness. When I try to be lazy, I waste time making fifty charts when I only needed ten. And if I needed some inhale work? I should have just read the unfiltered data and wrote the report later.

So, when you’ve been outputting a lot and you feel like you need to breath, the breath. Find what the intake when is for that task, and do it. If you need a break, take it. Trying to output all the time will kill you. You’ve got to breath in.

Now for me, and I am writing this at 11:16 at night, which is late for a dad. And I need a break break before I can exhale any more life.


Picking the right philosophy to solve your problems

I find that we humans sometimes become obsessed with philosophies that we think will help us overcome our flaws or that are the opposite of our weaknesses. We find the exact opposite of our reality and repeat it like a mantra. Sometimes, this works!

But have you ever found yourself repeating a mantra that doesn’t work? The problem persists? More often than not, we pick philosophies that only sound like the solution, but in actual practice they don’t work.

Sometimes you just have to keep striving and the philosophy will help you. Just because something takes a while to work doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But, sometimes you’re backing the wrong horse. Sometimes you’re trying a philosophy that really won’t help you.

I’ll use myself as an example. For years I felt powerless over certain weaknesses and habits and I sought a way to overcome them. Many talk about how you should “man up!” or “just do it!” or “pick yourself up by your bootstraps!” (a physical impossibility, you need something to push off of to pick yourself up, all you’ll do is tighten your boots if you follow that advice!). They say that by throwing agency and willpower at problems that you can conquer anything! You can be anything that you want! Like in the poem below. I once had it memorized and repeated it thousands of time. Hoping that it would give me strength:

by William E. Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may
for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Sounds awesome right? Sounds epic? How many memes and songs are out there today that are all about “Look at the awesomeness of me! I can do anything!”

Well, the poem didn’t fix me. I fell prey to the same weaknesses over and over again. Anger. Selfishness. A desire to consume entertainment and mental stimulation to excess. I was powerless to break my habits.

Thomas S. Monson (one of my Church’s leaders) said: “It is a great poem. It places upon the individual the responsibility for what he does with his life… But on the other hand, it may sound arrogant and conceited in terms of the Atonement.”

I learned over time that I couldn’t overcome my flaws by agency alone. That poem didn’t give me power. Why not? Why couldn’t I “man” myself out of my weaknesses? After some new understanding, I found this other poem which was written as a response to Invictus:

The Soul’s Captain
by Orson F. Whitney

Art thou in truth the master of thy fate?
The captain of thy soul?
Then what of him
who bought thee with his blood?
Who plunged into devouring seas
and snatched thee from the raging flood?

Who bore for all our fallen race
what none but him could bear–
the God who died that man might live,
and endless glory share?

Of what avail thy vaunted strength,
Apart from his vast might?
Pray that his Light
may pierce the gloom,
that thou might see aright.

Men are as bubbles on the wave,
as leaves upon the tree,
O’ captain of thy soul, explain!
Who gave that place to thee?

Free will is thine–free agency,
To wield for right or wrong;
But thou must answer unto him
To whom all souls belong.

Bend to the dust thy head “unbowed,”
small part of Life’s great whole!
And see in him, and him alone,
The Captain of thy soul.

Whether you are religious or not, the example works. Both poems are used as a solution to a flaw: feeling powerless to overcome weakness. One says grit your teeth and be tough, the other says use your agency to rely on something more powerful than yourself. You need someone/something to help lift you.

I had felt powerless that I chanted “I’m powerful!” a thousand times. But now I know that I am powerless. And only through the surrender of my will and my life to God do I find power.

Now, by switching philosophies, I have made much more progress with my flaws. I’m not perfect, and don’t expect to be anytime soon. But when I encounter a weakness, I surrender the battle with it to God. I bend with the wind, letting it pass over me, letting God take care of it. And the wind doesn’t break me nearly as often.

Not my will. His will. Not my glory. His glory. Not my battle. His battle. Let go and let God.

There are others that I see chanting their mantras such as miserable people who say “Do only what makes you happy and you alone.”

Those who have hurt others that say “If it’s in the past it doesn’t matter, accept what everyone does, have no expectations” and say nothing of the need for repentance, forgiveness, and restitution for harm done.

Those who are promiscuous and say “This lifestyle makes me happy” yet end up wondering why they are so sad and lonely.

Likely the greatest and the most harmful is the modern philosophy: “To follow your impulses with no restraint is freedom” and those who repeat that often learn too late that following impulses alone with no control leads to a life of slavery to addiction and to habit, with no friends or loved ones, broken and weak. Lonely and alone.

If you take a hard look at yourself, past the lies you tell yourself, you might find that the mantra or philosophy you keep repeating isn’t yielding the results you want. You might see that you need to double your efforts and persevere, you might see that you misunderstand the philosophy you are repeating, or you might see that you are trying to implement a philosophy that just won’t work. The philosophy is either a lie, or a half-truth.

Good luck! Keep trying, or give it up!


Just keep reading

Although this is the second entry in my “just keep… “ series, this may be the first rule you should keep and the first rule you have probably kept.

(There are people who don’t read much who decide to write novels, maybe because they love TV or video games, but if you don’t have a passion to consume the art form you’re trying to create, I don’t think you’ll be very good.)

One of the most important reasons to just keep reading is to learn through osmosis. Passive consumption works as a form of unconscious learning. You begin to absorb the rhythms of story and prose from the writers that you read. Things begin to get embedded into your instincts and intuition that will come out in your writing. (One reason it’s important to read good fiction.)

You can also do what I call “active reading.” This is when you read fiction with a more critical eye, focusing to recognize the patterns on the page, sitting and analyzing a phrase that had a particularly strong effect on you and to trying to understand why it had that effect. If you come to learn why and how, you will then be able to use those tools and components in your own storytelling.

I find that it is very helpful to look back at a story that I’ve read and analyze it. What made me care? What made me feel? How did the writer achieve  getting me through that emotional journey? What worked for me? What didn’t? And, perhaps most importantly, what almost or only partially worked and why or why didn’t it?

As I ponder these things (and write them down), I am more and more able to use the things I’ve learned from my reading in my own writing. I let the fiction I read fill me until I just burst.

I won’t give you a random number of books a year or pages or hours a day, just that you should do it consistently.

Go forth and fill your mind with awesomeness!