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:

Invictus
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!

Booyah.

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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!

Booyah.

Why “just keep writing” is the best writing advice ever

The most common writing advice I’ve heard is to “just keep writing.” When I was very new to writing I thought that such advice told me nothing. I had a million questions about writing, so why was that what I heard the most? Just keep trying? Just keep writing?

The key is that practice makes… better. The more you attempt a certain goal, the more able you become at achieving it. Each time you fail and try again, you get better. It took me years of trying and failing to build enough self control to get to the point where I was writing every single day. Not writing well, just writing at all. I wasn’t ready for more answers before then.

The natural man doesn’t have the drive to “just keep writing,” he looks for every excuse not to write. Every failure is actually a success, for each time you fail at writing consistently, you had also tried again. So keep trying, keep failing, and watch the failures become more and more spaced out. The days where I didn’t have the drive to write became further and further apart (habit tracking apps are great for helping with this).

5 years ago I would  have never dreamed that I’d be willing to wake at 5:00 AM every single day (including weekends) to write for 2 hours to meet my writing goal.

It’s what transitions you from someone who wants to write to a real writer. Wannabes talk or complain about writing. Real writers, well, they actually write. Once you have mastered the principle of “just keep writing” and you have a consistent writing habit, then you will start to discover your own answers to your other writing questions.

The next piece of advice I would offer is to “Just keep studying the craft.” you don’t have to wait ’til you master  “just keep writing” to start working on this skill, but “just keep writing” is more important. I’ll talk about studying craft in a future blog post.

So, here is you first and most important piece of advice:

Just keep writing!

What that really means is “if you fail, try again. This rule does not change.  No matter the number of failures.”

Booyah!

 

Debating the value of an idea or belief is not debating the value of the person who holds it.

Some people are willing to separate themselves from their ideas, while others are not.

I have some acquaintances who are easy to discuss differences of opinion with, because they don’t take it personally. Others get frustrated when I question an idea. I don’t necessarily question because I disagree, but because I want to view it from all angles and want to see if there are any holes in the idea. They see it as a personal attack.

Most people are not interested in truth but only in confirming what they believe.

People should be willing to place their beliefs on the altar of truth and then sacrifice it if the belief proves unworthy. Like Abraham and Isaac, you might not have to, but sometimes you will. You must be willing to leave behind false, broken, or incomplete ideas if they fail to pass the test of truth.

But the world is full of people with confirmation bias. They only want echo chambers.

Facebook and the current election are great examples of that. Facebook will show you that which you are most likely to like and interact with and that which matches what you say in your posts and what your search for on the web (and peeps usually search for things to confirm their beliefs, not offer an alternate perspective). Therefore everyone thought their favorite would win because “everyone on Facebook says so and agrees with me!” Facebook is flooded that way. Google too.

Am I wrong?

These three words have been vital to my growth. To constantly ask myself this has helped me to keep an open mind, to discard weak beliefs, and to keep and strengthen those that can stand the test of analysis of the evidence time and time again.

Rather than taking offense and shouting and declaring that my education or some vague authority makes me right (my argument not my authority should make me right instead, but I know people who do such blanket appeals to authority), I try to be open to the ideas and arguments of others.

I try to provide all foundations and steps of my argument so people don’t have to make leaps of logic or leaps of faith to accept my conclusions.

And I try to not take criticism of my ideas personally. Every false belief rejected is not a tragedy but a triumph, for you are now one step closer to the truth.

Boo yah!

-Thomas

How to overcome getting overwhelmed and work efficiently

I sometimes have a problem with getting overwhelmed and feeling anxious about all that I have to do. Over time, I’ve come up with these ludicrously simple (and ludicrously difficult for someone who has a hard time focusing) rules and tools.

Here are my rules of efficiency:

1: Focus on one task at a time

Focus on one task at a time, work on it for at least 30 minutes (use a timer, it helps) or when you need someone else’s input, then make the contact (in person, set up a meeting, make a call, or send an email).

2: Focus on a task for at least fifteen minutes to get momentum

I find that if I focus on one task for at least fifteen minutes, I get into the groove and the rest of the time comes much easier.

3: List all projects and subtasks, put aside and focus

List all projects and sub-tasks needed to get those projects done. Put this list aside when focusing on 1 task (this helps keep you from feeling confused and overwhelmed because you won’t have to remember it all, there is a list!).

4: Multiply expected time by 2 or 3

Assume that everything will take 2-3 times as long as your first impression. Don’t commit the planning fallacy!

5: Listen to non-distracting music

Listen to wordless, calm music like this meditation track (it must be music that will help drown out distractions but won’t be a distraction itself).

5: Wait to check texts or emails

Do not check texts or emails until you are between tasks.

6: Take breaks

Take short breaks (5-10 minutes) every hour or two and long breaks (15-30 minutes) every three or four  hours.

7: Spend 5 minutes pre-task getting pumped up

Spend 5 minutes before each working session to plan, visualize, brainstorm, understand and get pumped up for what you are going to work on next, write this in a paragraph or two on paper. It helps you to get in the mindset.  (Thanks to Rachel Aaron for this glorious tip!

8: Be patient with yourself

Some days you can’t do it all. Forgive yourself. You’ll have to shorten your list and simplify your life as you go along. But if you stress about everything you have to do, the guilt will make you explode!

There you go! Quit lying to yourself about your ability to multitask. You can’t. Become a monotasker (someone who can actually focus). Quit stressing out about all that you have to do, and do one thing at a time. You’ll get a lot more done.

You can do it!

Booyah!

-Thomas

Note: Article Updated Mon Dec 5 2016

What makes a corrupt civilization?

roman-senate

In fictional or real worlds, anytime a governing body has absolute rule, innocents suffer and die. The more innocents suffering and dying, the worse a civilization you have.

In fact, that is the true measure of a moral government and/or civilization. Do they see the deaths of innocents as a “necessary evil” to bring about change? Do they kill others in order to bring about some “higher purpose?” Heck, are they allowing people to die/killing them for no higher reason at all?

I just read “Trial of Intentions” where a governing group, in its efforts to increase intelligence, morality, etc. in people, tries to drive out old superstitious traditions, even to the point of bloodshed. They claim to be going for the greater good, but are willing to target a group of sorcerers because they think the sorcerers’ version of helping the people is outdated. They ignore the fact that the sorcerers have good intentions and do a lot of good, such as healing the sick.

In a world full of contention about the proper method of government, I think the finest test is to ask “How much are innocent or well-meaning people suffering in this culture?” When you look at the state of the poor, the weak, and the selfless, how are they treated? Are they helped? Protected? Ignored? Abused? Mistreated? Left to die? Killed?

maleficent536acd2c78057

Whatever highbrow philosophy the leaders spew, if they are murdering or abusing innocent or well-meaning men, women, children, then they fail the test.

Words alone won’t show you the heart’s intent. Actions will.

Use this as a little north-star when trying to ponder the proper kind of government or the value of a society, in real life or in fiction.

The less the governing body fears or has to answer to the common people, the more they are likely to abuse the innocent. The more they are likely to be a bad government. The voice of the people must be heard, and followed. Sometimes, the common people want what’s wrong. If that’s the case, then that civilization is doomed to self-destruction.

When the worst thing that CAN happen will ALWAYS happen (in fiction)

I hate fiction where the worst thing that can happen, will always happen.

A lot of writing books tell you “Make it worse! Did you? Now make it worse, again!” This is done as a technique to increase tension in a story.

But when the worst thing and the worst thing alone happens consistently, it starts to erode my suspension of disbelief (or, the believability of the story goes down). No matter how bad someone’s life is, no one has the single worst possible thing happen to them in every and any situation.

(Unless you’re Job from the Bible, but thank heavens that was only one story and not a trilogy!)

It doesn’t make logical sense for a character’s parents to die, then his mentor, his dog, his best friend, then his girlfriend turns evil, his leg is chopped off, (actually, this is starting to sound like an interesting story and a bad analogy). I’m trying to say it doesn’t make sense to look at all the possible outcomes of a scene and to ALWAYS pick the single WORST potential outcome. There are times, many times, where you want to pick the worst, or one that’s pretty bad. But to feel a little more REAL, you need to sometimes pick the good outcome, or, more often, the OK outcome.

This problem, however, usually isn’t enough for me to shut a book. Though my suspension of disbelief and my trust in the validity of the story are damaged, I usually see that as a plot problem. If the writer has done his most important job, I still care about the characters enough to want to know what happens to them.

The true problem comes from thinking “What’s the worst?” to thinking “What’s the next logical thing to happen with everything here?” Part of the problem is foreshadowing, but sometimes, you wonder why the enemy arrow always hit’s the throat. Or the character makes the wrong choice every time. Or the bad guy wins every time. Mix it up. Make it make sense.

And most of all, don’t feel you have to always make it “THE WORST.” Also, don’t feel you have to listen to my rules either.

 

Booyah!

How to discipline your creative brain

In short, rid yourself of the mindset that you have a Creative Brain and an Analytical Brain. Create a new mindset where you have 1 brain: A well-trained, well-practiced, and highly-disciplined Creative Brain.


In talking about Heinlein’s rules, Dean Wesley Smith says that writing is a creative activity, that we shouldn’t grind all personality out of our work by rewriting. He also says that we must read constantly; we must analyze the writing of others; we must study craft, prose, and, most importantly, storytelling techniques; we must actually write; and we must finish what we write.

Heinlein’s Rules:

  1. You must write
  2. Finish what you start
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put your story on the market
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold
  6. You must study the craft (I added this, from comments Dean made)

In reading his book, a metaphor took form in my head. Currently, most people view their brains as being the creative brain and the critical brain.

The creative brain is like a hippy, wild and free, running around with no forethought, no discipline, making scattered notes on the piano or splattering paint all over the walls, all wild and random and instinctual expression.

The analytical brain is like a librarian, strict and stern, concerned with order and organization and cleaning up the messes of others, following behind the hippy and trying to find what it considers “good” music or an “artistic” paint job based off of what others have said before. Whatever fits the librarians prescribed beliefs survives, everything is muted or painted over.

This is a BAD mental model. It makes it so that the hippy bears no responsibility, and the librarian has all authority but is often following the trend so much that whatever “art” is left is drab, boring, and so much like everything else.

A new mental model is needed. Instead of two halves, there is one whole. An artist. A musician, a composer, a dancer. The artist has all the creativity of the the hippy but doesn’t lack foresight. The artist has all of the discipline of the librarian and none of the generalizing prescribed notions.

The artist finds the balance between expression and creation, discipline and focus. It is to take the hippy and offer focused practiced and study. Not to see what is commonly accepted by other professionals (like the librarian), but to learn how to create an experience for the consumer. A powerful emotional experience, tested and learned step by step, with focused practice. Not wanton splattering of random ideas nor the arbitrary slaughter of all but the most statistically accepted by values that seem to exist “just because.”

Dean Wesley Smith says:

“Rewriting is when you do a sloppy first draft with the intent of “letting it sit” (dumbest thing I have ever heard) and then “fix it” later.

This lazy attitude is the attitude of the hippy and the librarian (which actually ends up being a LOT MORE work). Have the attitude of the Artist. Dean says:

“If you tell your creative voice to do it right the first time, the story won’t be broken.”

Train your creative voice. Read a lot. Consume stories. Study how stories are written. Use that in your writing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Become the writer you were meant to be.

 

p.s. Read everything by Dean Wesley Smith. His words about the business of writing have transformed the way I approach the writing career.

Facebook and Google are putting you in a bubble

Someone on the radio the other day (NPR, perhaps?) pointed out that some groups think that the whole country is going to vote for their favorite presidential candidate while polls show that only about 20% of people are considering them.

Why? Because:

Facebook and Google, in their efforts to show content which they think we would like, show us more of the type of content we interact with. Therefore, they are creating pocket bubble cultures where beliefs are never questioned and reinforced within the group.

This makes people think “The whole world agrees with me! Everyone on Facebook is saying the same thing!”

Not only does this affect what people think most of the world believes, but it makes it more and more difficult to encounter and consider differing viewpoints. This is strongly related to confirmation bias. “Confirmation bias, or Positive Bias is the tendency to look for evidence that confirms a hypothesis, rather than disconfirming evidence.”

Check out this video real quick and see if you can solve the riddle:

 

Google and Facebook take advantage of this, feeding us articles that we read more, like more, share more. They tailor what we see to be more to what we’ll interact with. And we’re more likely to seek out and interact with things which agree with us. And that’s no way to progress, to learn more.

To conclude, here’s a quote from the Veritasium video above, he says:

“The scientific method is to set out to disprove your theory, and when you can’t disprove it, that’s when you know you’re getting to something really true about our reality.”

 

Is my fantasy too European?

When I saw that agents are looking for non-European fantasy, I wondered if my fantasy fit that criteria. So I underwent a process of self-examination and I learned that I DON’T write European fantasy. Nor do I write Asian fantasy, American fantasy, Middle-Eastern fantasy, or African fantasy.

I create my own cultures, from scratch. I take ingredients from different cultures and invent new recipes. I don’t copy a recipe/culture and tweak it slightly, I start from the ground up and invent entirely new dishes.

I’ll emphasize that:

I don’t appropriate and tweak other cultures for my fantasy. I create entirely new cultures from scratch.

One novel (Two Masters) features a culture inspired partially by ancient Israel (a tribal system with a strong religious influence) and partially by early gunpowder-era Japan. However, the culture’s religion draws from Catholicism and the government is theocratic meritocratic dictatorship (1 leader rules absolutely, with laws based on religion, and other leadership positions are attained by passing specific tests and quizzes better than others).

Another novel (Robbing Gods) has a culture that’s almost like a China going through a magical industrial revolution. Another culture is inspired by Jews, Native Americans, with a little bit of Nazi ideology. They’ve been driven forth by other races for centuries, found a land to call their own, but other races have still oppressed them. After growing sick of this, they’ve rejected all other races and are willing to commit genocide to have a land for themselves.

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You read that right, I used Nazis and Jews as inspiration for a culture. Once wanderers (like the Jews), then struggling with settlers (like the Native Americans), and now they’re willing to slaughter all not of their race, considering themselves superior (Nazis). Oh, and their leader is sort of like a mix between Hitler and Joan-of-Arc. She’s brutal, but loves her people and feels she is inspired to do what she does.

I find that my favorite fantasy uses this “invent a new recipe from random ingredients” method. Brandon Sanderson’s way of kings is ridiculously difficult to pin down as having been inspired by one certain culture (magic tech, kings and princes, racial discrimination based on eye color, people with white eyebrows that never stop growing).

I suggest giving this method a try. Invent brand new dishes and brand new worlds. What if there were a race of humans who had spikes in their elbows, believed in a god made up of the thought-energy of their ancestors, lived in outhouse sized homes by themselves (1 per person, privacy is greatly important), and their government was based on taking what everyone thought and putting it through a series of mathematical equations to decide what to do.

Which culture inspired that? Oh and they fight with sword-shoes. (I just came up with this.

I’m done worrying. Now, I could do better with having greater diversity in my stories, and having stories with less western modes of morality. I’m trying to do better with that. But with that also I’ll invent my own diversity. I can’t represent African-Americans in a world where there are none, but I can create my own minorities and give them a voice, reflecting the same pain felt by minorities in our world.

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My advice: Create brand new dishes. You can definitely create Native American, African, or Polynesian fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact more fantasy of those kinds would be nice). But know that you’re not limited to slightly tweaking the cultures that already exist.

You can create an infinite amount of brand new ones from scratch.

 

Booyah!