Success: Ben Franklin Style

In Benjamin Franklin’s The Art of Virtue, he offers us concrete advice in the form of thirteen virtues required to attain genuine success.  What are they?

Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, Humility.

I love the advice in Humility which is to imitate Jesus and Socrates and would like to start there, but I’m going to exercise restraint (needed to wrap my mind around all this in view of career/writing), start at the beginning of the list, and work through it.

Temperance. Defined technically as moderation, especially in “eating and drinking.”

There’s wisdom in that moderation, but it stops too short.  If we apply moderation more broadly, then what we’re really doing is giving ourselves room to integrate balance.  We all know what lives and careers are like when we’re not balanced.  We’re stressed, tense, likely candidates for being maxed or burned out.  But balanced, we are mentally, emotionally, and physically stable.  We’re better equipped to deal with challenges and to handle success, well, successfully.

Success and its absence each carry equal but different challenges and joys.  So balance is essential to our well being, and moderation, or temperance, is essential to balance.

So don’t apply temperance just to food and drink.  If you do, you’re shorting yourself.  Apply it broadly, knowing that in doing so, you’re increasing success on both a personal and a professional level.  And you’re doing so by integrating temperance.

Silence. So many people underestimate the power of silence.  Don’t be one of them.  Silence can express approval or disapproval.  It can start or stop a disagreement.  We’re warned that our tongues get us into more trouble than our acts.  What we speak carries power and authority and consequences.

We’ve all heard the term “rush to judgment.”  At one time, we were sick to death of hearing it.  From our characters to ourselves, when engaged in conversation, negotiations, discussions, when silence comes, our instinctive reaction is to fill it.  Typically, when we do, we’re not pausing to fully consider the weight of our words, or the intended or unintended consequences.

Silence can speak volumes.  It can grant peace or urge others to act or behave in a specific way.  It can give others the opportunity to pause and weigh the consequences, intended and unintended, of their words and actions.

Let me share a couple examples.  In a radio interview once, a host stepped over the line.  I could have fired off a blistering retort.  But if I had, my message would have been lost.  Listeners might have enjoyed it, but they would not have gotten the bigger message and that was the purpose of the discussion.  The host would have looked bad.  Really bad.  Making someone else look bad is never a good idea.  It’s tacky, testy, and just plain mean.  So I opted for silence.

Well, silence on the radio means dead air.  One thing radio cannot have is dead air.  Since I didn’t fill it, the host did, and did so in an amazingly more congenial tone.  You see, in that pause, the host realized my response would make him look bad, and honestly, he might or might not have hoped for an angry response.  But in not getting one, in getting silence, the onus fell back to him.  In one glance, he knew that while the bait had been noted, that it was bait had also been noted, and I wasn’t going to swallow it.  Silence did more than a shouting match could have done.  He paused, he thought, he elected to be civil and he did so knowing that I could have zapped him and didn’t.  The interview not only continued on message, it went longer than expected and ended on good terms.  What could have been a lose/lose situation became a win/win situation.  Not by what was said, but by silence.

In the realm of disagreements and personal relationships, we all know there are millions of times when there is no right thing to say.  When anything said will inflame or infuriate.  When silence is indeed the best available option.  Like everything else, silence has its season.  There are times to speak up, and times to stay silent.

Not silent and seething.  Silent and peaceful.  Because you understand another’s perspective, because you realize there are added stressors that have nothing to do with the current disagreement.  Because silence is, for whatever reason, the right thing to do.

Have you ever been in an intense conversation and the other party looks away.  Do you remember the powerful impact of that?

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed, so sad or hurt or discouraged or in such deep emotional pain that you’d cry out for help but you’re so down you have no idea what to ask for?  No clue what it will take to make things right?  You mentally search and search and end up not uttering the first word because your stuck and can’t find the word you need to convey all you’re internally feeling.  Silence.

Have you ever said something you wished you hadn’t?  Said something that was wrong or hurtful or that created or perpetuated a circumstance or event that you wished you could take back, could have avoided?  Silence.

The less said on some things the better.  Words can harm or heal.  Injure or refresh.  Infuriate or soothe.  (Note that balance–either or, one or the other.)  Words are the outward manifestation of internalized thoughts.  We think it, then speak it.

In the interim silence, we hear and then process what is spoken, and then we react to it.  Words can be a blessing or a curse.  They can invite or shun goodness or evil.

We deal with the results of our words all the time.  So considering them warrants thought and consideration.  If we’re dealing with more negatives than we’d like, with more curses than blessings, and we want to change that balance, then we might want to remember that silence is golden.

A perk that comes with that due thought and consideration is that we speak less to regret, we avoid many unintended circumstances, and when we do speak up or out, others tend to really listen.  And those things add sparkle to the gold in silence.

Order. Whether it’s order in our personal lives or in our professional lives, we appreciate the benefits of order.  We like finding what we’re looking for, we like knowing where what we need is located, we appreciate the time we spend constructively rather than wasted because we’re functioning in crisis-mode, in chaos.

Some say they’re free spirits, they detest the rigidity in structure, they like living on the edge, being constantly surprised.  In some things, those adventures can appeal.  But those same free spirits who detest rigidity in structure wouldn’t have that attitude if they say, needed immediate medical attention and the emergency room was in chaos, or the grocery store was in such disorder that the needed items couldn’t be found because they hadn’t been ordered or delivered or put on the shelf. They wouldn’t like it if their bank was in such disarray that it couldn’t process their deposits to cover their checks or prepare their statements.

In writing, without order, what the writer is hoping to communicate can’t be understood.  The characters lack credibility because they’re acting on motivations that aren’t clear.  The sequence of events are out of step and because they are they make no sense. The writer’s message is lost.

Even those who hate order need order in their lives.  A big misconception is that order restricts when the exact opposite is true.  Order liberates.

Time not spent looking for things is free to be used on other things.  Order provides a framework in which we can function.  The absence of order is like playing a game where you don’t know the rules.  You can’t win or lose because the game can’t be played.

Imagine trying to accomplish a goal, to realize a dream, to reach new heights that every atom in your being urges you to reach without order.

You can’t develop a plan, you can’t take concrete steps to make that dream a reality, you can’t stretch because the space needed to do so is filled with the clutter of disorder.

When you “get your house in order” you pave the way for the mundane and ordinary to be just that.  Expected.  Done quickly because you know what needs doing, when it needs to be done, and so you do it and then those things are done and you’re free to move on to other things.  There is goodness and joy in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.  We can look at clean floors and feel good because our kids or grans or our spouses or parents aren’t tiptoeing through clutter.

Now before you minimize the importance of those clean floors, let me ask you this:  Have you ever tried to blaze a trail through a floor filled with clutter?  Have you ever tried to focus on something really important to you but couldn’t because ten other things were screaming at you inside your head that they needed to be done–now?  Have you ever tried to make sense of something that was in total disorder?

I remember once pulling an audit on an escrow office that was in total disarray.  Multiple sets of books, multiple policies issued under one number, multiple everything.  I ended up having to go back years, to when the disorder started, work with a calendar and four colored pens to figure out exactly what happened and why and when.  It took months to get that house in order, but once it was, it took snippets of time to maintain.  Cutting through the clutter took effort and energy and tons of patience, but the lesson was well worth learning.  If you get your house in order and keep your house in order then you don’t spend all your time in frustrated disorder.  You’re free from that bondage.  You’re liberated.  And liberated, you can use that time for other constructive purposes–including time to dream.

Imagine writing an entire book without punctuation.  We all know that one comma can totally change the meaning of a sentence.  What do you think the odds are for a reader to understand a entire book with no punctuation?  Would your purpose in writing it be fulfilled?  Would it be successful at offering insights, understanding?  Would it open the door in a closed mind–or even have that potential?

No.  All of the hopes and dreams for that work would be lost.  No one could make heads or tails of reading it other than to identify the words.  The punctuation instills order.  It allows us to share what we want to share by structuring the work so that it relates what we mean for it to relate and it makes sense to readers.   When we convey what we want to convey in a way that can be comprehended and understood, well, that’s success.

We tend to extend our personal habits to our professional ones.  If we get our personal house in order, typically that carries over into our professional lives.  When our personal and professional lives are in order, we are more apt to succeed–and to dream bigger dreams because we have the time saved from the lack of disarray.  We’re free from disorder and its many frustrations.  We’re enjoying the blessings of order.

Resolution. When we are resolved, we endure, we sacrifice, we push through obstacles, walk extra miles.  We do what we must do because we are determined, fixated, motivated.  We do what we must do because we’re resolved.

Few good things in life come without effort and focus. We’ve all heard the old saying about the harder we work, the luckier we get.  I don’t recall  who first said it but credit him/her with saying it and thank him/her for providing the rest of us with an important key to success.  When we’re resolved, we’re exercising restraint, self-control, discipline.  We’re exercising temperance and resolve.  (Note how the virtues work together, in harmony.)

If instead when the going gets tough, we walk, we’re exercising the lack of those things and that lack of resolve assures that we’ll fail to achieve the success we’re seeking.

Now if we fail and pull back, regroup, and seek constructive ways to avoid mistakes and succeed, that takes resolve.  And that isn’t truly failure because we’ve gained wisdom and knowledge:  things required to assure that our next effort doesn’t fail due to us making the same mistakes.  If we exercise enough of these types of failures and we actively continue our pursuit, eventually we will “fail” our way to success.

With each attempt and “failure” and reassessment, we don’t repeat our same mistakes.  We might make new ones, but again, when we fall back and regroup, try again, we filter out mistakes and eventually succeed.  The key to success is resolve.  We don’t fail, fall back, and quit.  We analyze, figure out where we went wrong, develop a plan that avoids those mistakes, and then try again.

Success comes in trying again.  That’s exercising resolve.

Remember:  if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  If it isn’t worth doing well, why do it at all?  You’re investing your time–your life–your most precious commodity and to invest something so precious it’s life’s treasure, you should be investing in something worth such an investment.

So resolve is essential.  But in what you invest requires your resolve, too.   And that’s the part that too often falls to convenience’s sake, expediency’s sake.  If I do this or that, maybe I can accomplish x.  That’s not resolve.  That’s settling.

Resolve is going after that which you most want.  Not settling for what you can get.  You were created for purpose.  Your destiny isn’t to settle.  It’s to excel.  To excel requires you to heed the virtues.  In doing so you increase your odds for real success, your best success, because you’re working in harmony with the totality of those virtues.

Think of this as a round bench with seven legs.  Each leg carries a portion of the weight placed on the bench.  Each leg keeps it balanced and level, makes it sturdy and strong.  Take out a leg or two or  five (due to neglect or damage or lack of interest), and then ask yourself:  Will the bench will hold as

much weight?  Will it have the strength to support major success?  Your destiny?

The weakened bench might hold a little weight.  It might even hold a little more than a little weight.  But it will not hold the most weight.  It can’t.  It’s weaker.  So to achieve major success, your very best, all of your personal destiny, you need all seven legs in place, tended to, and strong.  Then you’re in a position to enjoy the full fruits of your personal destiny.  Your greatest success.

Resolve is required.  No one achieves their best with half-hearted attempts.  Running a scatter-gun approach.  Dipping in a toe.  Making a single attempt.  Lacking total commitment.

This is why it is critical we decide specifically how we define success and what we consider our greatest success.  Defined and identified, then we’re in a position to commit and to plan the means for achieving our success.  Then we look at that plan in light of the virtues and make sure each leg on our personal stool stands strong and bears its weight.  That the supports are present and secured in place.

Then we can resolve to be resolved.

One of the most damaging phrases to success I’ve ever heard is, “I’ll try.”

“I’ll try,” implies effort but also doubt.  Doubt feeds fear, and fear undermines success.  It holds you back.  It openly states a lack of faith, commitment, and resolve.

Make your resolution.  Write it down.  When doubt encroaches–and it will–refute it.  Double your resolve.  And claim your success.  It is your destiny.

Frugality. We’re all familiar with the challenges that come with excessive spending.  With waste.  Whether it’s wasting money, energy, or time.

Growing up, the first financial lesson my parents taught me was to tithe.  The second lesson was that you never spend all of what you make.  Whatever you earn, you live beneath your means and save a portion of whatever you earn.

Those were lessons for which I’ve always been grateful, and ones I wish my parents had taught others, including our leadership, which even after seeing the fallout of not doing so has continued to live above its means.

There are huge benefits in frugality.  I’m not suggesting that we all become cheap, or that we do everything on the cheap.  I don’t believe that’s what Franklin meant, and I know it isn’t what I mean.

Frugality is avoiding waste and abuse, it’s spending wisely, thoughtfully, purposefully.  And frugality isn’t limited to money, though the wisdom of the virtue there is certainly clear.  It’s about any and all commodities you possess.

Your time, for example.  Be frugal with your time, avoiding waste or abuse in it, spending it wisely, purposefully and thoughtfully, and you’ve created an atmosphere conducive to success.

Your possessions.  Avoid  wasting what you have, abusing it, and you retain more longer, you also prove trustworthy as a steward for more.

In your job, if you’re frugal–not wasting or abusing your boss’ resources, the time for which you’re being paid, the products you provide, the services you render–you’re a good employee.  Trusted, singled out for promotion because you are invested and treating your employer and his resources with the same respect and regard you do your own.

Frugality doesn’t mean to short-change or short-cut, or to undercut quality.  It means to seek only quality.  Quality time, quality use, quality for effort expended.

Quality is elevated in frugality because the negative opposites of it are eliminated.  Can or will you eliminate all?  Probably not, but you can do your best to do so.  And that is an environment that invites success.

Industry. An industrious young man took risks.  Many claimed he was crazy, wasting his time.  He was called a radical, an upstart.  He made waves, challenged the status quo, angered many people, and his impact is still felt some two thousand years later.  He was industrious.

He embraced virtues and acted.  And therein lies a good lesson for us all.

You can have a fantastic idea, but if you don’t analyze it, weigh its value, consider its risks, its potential benefits–do your homework–and then act to manifest it, all you have is an idea.  It won’t manifest because it can’t.

Likewise, if you don’t weigh and consider every facet you can reasonably weigh and consider, at best you have a half-baked idea that might or might not enjoy some success.

Great success historically requires thinking outside the box, but it requires thinking inside the box, too.  You’ve heard it said that there’s no need to constantly reinvent the wheel.  But there is or could be value in improving what exists, in honing and making a better wheel.  So don’t misunderstand the dynamic.  Thinking outside the box can be beneficial, but it can also be a diversionary tactic.  One that claims your imagination, your energy and effort, and actually deters you from your greatest success because in the end what you achieve isn’t necessarily better only different.

Industrious seeks better.  In simplistic terms, Ben Franklin had poor eyesight.  He was self-taught.  Being self-taught meant extensive reading.  Extensive reading during only daylight hours limited the time he could invest in learning.  Need motivated him to become industrious to increase the time available for learning.  Candles and poor eyesight were obstacles.  But this industrious man considered the challenges and found ways to overcome them.  He did extensive work on glasses and electricity–and on many other things.  He thought outside the box but also inside the box.  A need that needed to be filled.  An obstacle that required a solution.  To fulfill those needs and solve the challenges in those obstacles, he became industrious.  And because he did, he benefited and so do we.

Sincerity. This virtue is hugely underestimated today, and that is in no small part a direct result of the existing culture of greed and corruption.  We’ve learned to be suspicious, to doubt others’ word, to be wary of scammers and thieves of property and even identity.  We know that there are those among us who make careers out of beating the system, using what was intended for good in ways that personally benefit–legal or not.

Two examples.  Hawaii had a program where it picked up half the fees for kids without insurance, so they could see doctors and get meds and be cared for.  It was working out great.  Children who needed care were getting it.  But soon parents who had insurance for their own children dropped those policies.  It benefitted them not to pay for their kids’ insurance when the state would pay those expenses for them.  After just seven months, Hawaii had to drop the project.  You see, the program was designed to help those children who otherwise couldn’t get what they needed.  It wasn’t designed to help those who could get what they needed but were born to parents who expected the state to absorb their parental responsibilities.  So before the program could bankrupt the state, it had to be stopped.

The parents who elected to abuse the system caused its elimination.  That was a lack of sincerity that caused traumatic consequences.

Now some would say, why should I pay for what others get for free?  Where is the sincerity or justice in that?

To them, I say, these were children, not able adults unwilling to work or adults who live with a sense of entitlement–as if others owe them something.  Perhaps their parents didn’t make wise choices, perhaps their parents lacked sincerity, but that’s not the issue.  Those parents might or might not have had extenuating circumstances that put them in a horrific position.  But that isn’t germane in this case, either.  What is germane is that it was the children who were impacted and the children who suffered the consequences of the lack of sincerity–regardless of its source.

Sincerity in our actions, in our deeds, in our behavior has an enormous impact on our success and on the  quality of life we experience.  Every day of our lives, at any given moment in our lives, we make choices.  Some good, some bad.  We live with the consequences of both.  So do others in our circle of influence.

Let’s look at a few simple facts:

Someone lies to you.  Do you ever again believe them without wondering if they’re being truthful this time or lying again?

Someone violates your trust.  Even with the effort and time required to rebuild it, when an issue arises that requires trust, do you give it–without remembering the violation?

Someone manipulates you.  Or tries to manipulate you.  Are you eager to embrace that person?  You might forgive them on moral grounds–because it is the right thing for you to do–but does that require you to put yourself in the position of being manipulated again?  It doesn’t.  Common sense and logic warns against it.  Forgive them, yes.  But don’t ignore the insights you’ve gained into their character.

When someone is genuine, sincere in their assertions and actions, and in the manner in which they conduct themselves and their lives, they avoid violations of this type which raise questions in others’ minds.  General doubts and concerns due to culture occur, but specific offenses and abuses aren’t in play.

Now you can’t control what others think and do or how they behave.  Some will look at you and attribute their own motives, acts, and behavior to you, expecting you to be and react as they would.  That’s human, but it also leads to a lot of false conclusions.  You can’t control that.  Only they can.

What you can control is you:  your thought life, your physical life, your spiritual life, your conduct, and your behavior.  You know your motives, your reasons for doing what you do, when you do it, the way you do it.

If you act with sincerity, you’ve spared yourself  the hardships and results of violating others.  You’ve also spared yourself self-inflicted violations.

Again, note the interaction in the virtues and how one leg of our bench is interdependent on all the others.

Sincerity isn’t a facade.  It isn’t a face we put on to greet the public.  It’s a mindset seated in principle and ethics, in morals and in faith.

It’s a belief that seeming genuine isn’t our best.  To achieve our greatest success, we must be genuine.

That’s sincere.

Justice. Inside us beats a heart that cries for justice.  We want wrongs made right.  The unfair made fair.  We want the guilty to pay, the innocent spared, the liar exposed, the thief caught, the criminal punished.

We don’t just want justice, we crave it.  We rely on it to keep our streets and homes safe, our society one in which we feel secure and in which we aren’t ashamed.  We want the bad guys to lose, the good guys to win, and for all things to work out right in the end–however we define right.

And sometimes they do.

But sometimes they don’t.

A hard lesson for me to learn to the point of acceptance was that people aren’t all basically good.  They aren’t all ethical, they aren’t all moral, and they don’t always wish, hope and pray for the greater good.  They could be all those things and more, but some choose not to be for a myriad of reasons.

We’ve heard justice prevails, it all comes out in the wash, what goes around comes around.  All those sayings and many more.  But we look around and we see horrible deeds go unpunished, wicked behavior by the lowest of standards reap rewards.  We see injustice and at times we begin to doubt justice exists.

Let’s dispel the rumors.

Justice exists.  The perimeters were set forth thousands of years ago in the form of basic truths and they haven’t changed.  Truths are like that.  They’re universal and they’re enduring.

What might or might not be enduring is the legs on justice’s bench.  We let this or that slide, let someone fudge a little, fail to hold lawbreakers accountable, and we make the legs of justice wobbly.

You see, the law isn’t what’s defined justice all these years.  People have defined justice. Justice is.  But the choices made either support or diminish it.  And each time justice is circumvented, it becomes a little harder to sustain.  The bench legs grow a little more wobbly.  It isn’t that the truth has changed.  That justice has changed.  The support for it is what changes.

Realizing that the truth remains and justice is justice regardless of whether or not it’s supported or enforced or deliberately manipulated or circumvented doesn’t alter justice.  It does alter the application of justice.

So we choose.  We live in a country where justice is to be applied equally.  If it is, great.  We’ve fulfilled our personal obligation in fostering it.  If it isn’t, then we haven’t.  That’s the long and short of it.  The rest is just clutter.

Justice isn’t just about what a court or government decides is just and then renders.  It’s what people demand from its courts and government.  Justice isn’t just about what’s outside of us, either.  It’s within.  Our craving for justice requires we be just.  In our opinions, in our attitudes, in our acts.

An example.  You go in to negotiations.  Your objective is to make the best deal you can.  On the other side of the table sits one whose objective is to make the best deal s/he can make.  If you both negotiate in good faith, then eventually you end up somewhere in the middle.  If both leave that table feeling good about the deal, you’ve achieved a fair deal.  A win/win situation.

But when those negotiations are not held in good faith, and a win/win situation isn’t sought, someone loses.  Too many feel good about winning in a situation where someone loses.

I’m not talking about a competition, or a foot race here.  There are times and situations were there are winners and losers and that’s that.  We enjoy our wins, mourn our losses, being philosophical and sincere in recognizing that no one wins all the time, and then we press on.  I’m talking about the situations where one person deliberately sets out to take advantage of another.  Who permits or allows someone to make a bad deal because they can.  Is that just?

Some would say if s/he’s dumb enough to do it, yes.  But one who loves justice will not.  One who loves justice realizes that if you make a killing at the negotiating table the first time, there won’t be a second trip to the table because the other party will be dead.

The death of your opponent isn’t success.  It’s suicide.  Because there are only so many people who can and will sit on the opposite side of that negotiating table.  In short, you run out of victims or potential partners.

Implementing justice is spiritually mature.  It’s seeing the wisdom and benefits of having both parties walk away feeling that they’ve made a fair deal.  In a fair deal, both parties feel invested, enthused, excited.  Both parties see merit in the project or product or service, and both look forward to the process of fruition.

Some will disagree.  Some will say that you must go for the jugular, get all you can, take all at any cost.  And some do function that way.  Some even appear to prosper . . . for a time.  But is that prosperity truly success?

When justice isn’t applied within or without, what’s left is spiritually bankrupt.  How many people do you know who are spiritually bankrupt and content?  Fulfilled?  Sleep well at night?  Meet their eyes in the morning mirror and like what they see?

It is the unseen in us that craves justice.  And it is the unseen in us that blesses or curses, praises or condemns us for our part in embracing or shunning it.

Justice isn’t for the fainthearted.  It isn’t for the weak.  It is for those strong enough to be vulnerable and strong enough to do the right thing even though the tangible, physical and immediate rewards for such are invisible to the naked eye, intangible, or inconvenient.

The bottom line is that if we want justice we must be just.  We must object to injustice in all its forms.  Even when it’s not politically correct, or when we’ll take heat for doing so.  Even when it’s out of vogue, or it would be oh-so-much easier on us to ignore, to pretend ignorance of it, to walk away.

Justice is blind to many things, but not to the truths within us.  If we want it, we have to insist on it.  Because injustice is often presented because it ruffles fewer feathers and causes fewer challenges.

Yet the consequences of going along with it is you only gain greater challenges, more complex challenges, and the absence of justice.

And then we crave it all the more.

Moderation. The wisdom of the ages is to be moderate in all things.  We see what happens if we get too far to either side–we have no balance.  Hard to function with no balance.

If we eat too much, we gain weight.  If we eat too little, we lose weight.  In all we do, we see the benefit of balance, or moderation.

From bodily intake to taking time off from work, we see the challenges that arise when the balance is broken.  We’re right back to our bench.  Moderation means all the legs on the bench are the same length.  Overindulgence in any area, and those legs are too long.  Under-indulge, and they’re too short.  Either way, the bench isn’t useable for normal function because it’s not stable.  It rocks and wobbles.  It tilts and jerks.  The bench can’t be a successful bench because it lacks moderation–or legs that are all the same length, which then spread the weight placed on the bench.

At times, we all indulge in excess.  We all reap the rewards or challenges from doing so, too.  The problem is that we tend to not consider those consequences until after we indulge.  We know we should.  We know it’s best.  We know, and yet we indulge anyway.

Human beings are basically self-indulgent.  We want what we want and we want it when we want it, which more often than not is right now.  We rationalize, deceive ourselves and others, talk around, avoid, deny, refuse to accept–all to foster our desire to do what we want to do.  And the more certain we are that we shouldn’t indulge, the harder we try to all those things we know we shouldn’t, or some combination of them, to justify our actions.

We talk ourselves into this extreme action, do it, and then live to regret it.

The wise part of us says we knew what we were doing, and we asked for it.  The wise part of us accepts personal responsibility for the action.  But those among us who have yet to reach that emotional and spiritual maturity look for someone else to blame–anyone else to blame.

The consequences of the indulgence are suffered either way–in accepting responsibility for your actions and being personal accountable, or in blaming someone else, denying your responsibility and shunning your accountability.

But the truth is this:  You suffer the consequences.

If you accept responsibility and are accountable, you can atone by taking constructive action to correct the challenge and by choosing not to engage again.

If you deny responsibility and are not accountable, you’ve got bigger problems that will keep coming at you until you get the message that if you indulge, you are indulging.

If you blame others, you’ve added an entire new level to the consequences challenge.  Why?

Because you’ve attributed blame to someone blameless.  That’s unjust.  (There’s that interaction between the virtues again!)  Then you suffer the consequences of that infraction, too!

Moderation isn’t intended to restrict us from anything.  It’s purpose is to keep us healthy, our personal scales balanced.  But to implement moderation in our lives requires restraint.  Self-control.  Discipline.  It requires us to examine the value of moderation–and that includes our mouths.

Moderating speech–what we say, how we say it, to whom we say it–is a huge key to success.

If we indulge in gossip, we should expect at some point to be the topic of it.  If we lose our tempers and speak harshly, we’re likely saying things for which we must later apologize.  At best, we’re generating a lot of bad will.  If we’re harsh and vindictive, we’ll have earned our reputations for being so.

Are any of those things healthy environments for success?  Our greatest success?

Be moderate in all things.  I’m far from the first to say it, and far from the first to know a great piece of advice when I see or hear one.  This is great advice.

Physical, emotional, or spiritual moderation isn’t being lukewarm on anything.  One can be passionate and moderate.  Determined and moderate.  Bursting

with joy and be moderate.  One can enjoy a fabulous meal, lap swimming, and still be moderate.

Moderation helps us build balance, avoid injury, preventing us from going over or under on nearly everything on every front.  It is a process.  Moderation also helps us maintain balance.  Achieving is but a part of success.  Maintaining what we achieve is essential to achieving our greatest success, and that requires moderation.

Cleanliness. We think of cleanliness in terms of our body, work area, home.  In terms of keeping things neat and tidy.  And those things are very important.  We know the disease and challenges that can come from germs and bacteria, from the lack of cleanliness.  But how often do we consider the cleanliness of our emotions?  Of our minds?

Remember, we’re three-dimensional human beings:  physical, emotional and spiritual or mind, body and spirit.

We know from virtues already covered the challenges that occur with imbalance.  Without moderation.  When we lack temperance, silence, order and justice.  We know that the virtues are interdependent and one enhances and strengthens the others.  So why then knowing these things do we not consider the cleanliness of our emotions and our minds and spirits equally important to that of our physical being and world?

When emotions are unclean, they’re warped.  They skew our sense of well being, twist our mindset, our perspective.  They too often turn dark and menacing, destructive.  Our relationships with others suffer, our sense of worth and value suffers.  We suffer.

When our minds are unclean, our thoughts take us down wrong roads, polluted roads, roads that make problems bigger, harder to tackle, fearful roads.  We start to compromise on ethics, our sense of right and wrong gets muddy.  We say and do things that we believed we’d never do–that we know are self-destructive to do.

Unclean attracts unclean.  What we tolerate or attract we claim.  What we claim either is or becomes us.

This makes the purity of thoughts extremely important.  Where the mind goes, the body follows.  Not sure who said it, but I’ve lived enough to know it’s true.  Let me share a specific.

When you’re around positive, upbeat people, you’re more apt to be positive and upbeat.  When you’re surrounded by negativity, it is really hard not to be negative.  It permeates your defenses against it.  It massages and manipulates what is into its darkest forms.  We all know that our mood or attitude impacts our perception.  So if our thoughts are dark, we’re going to become dark.  It’s the logical, morbid path.

We all go through dark times.  Losing someone we love–grief is truly merciless–being falsely accused of infractions we did not commit, being lied to or about, not getting a promotion we deserve, doing the work and someone else getting the credit, being used, abused, asked questions that let us know someone is indifferent as to whether we live or die, only interested in how they’ll be impacted and if they will get their rightful share of what we leave behind.  The list is endless.

Our thoughts in these situations are naturally dark, and we have to exercise discipline and control to overcome them and not let them taint our entire lives, because unchecked, they will.  They’ll color everything, spreading and seeping into every crevice and cranny until our total being is tainted.

That requires us making a conscious choice to not allow it.  When our minds turn dark, we have to force ourselves to turn back to light.  When someone hurts us or wrongs us, we have to forgive them and then turn to those who love us and treat us well.

We control ourselves in these situations.  No pill, no wallowing in self-pity, no casting heaps of blame elsewhere will fix anything or do anything to get our minds clean and our thoughts positive.  We must choose to be positive, to think positive, to act on positive thoughts.  If we do, then the rest of us will catch up.  Where the mind goes, the body follows.

Just as unclean bodies are home to bacteria and disease, unclean thoughts are home to mental dis-ease.  Mental dis-ease fosters physical disease.

When gloom and doom occupy all your thoughts, there’s no room for success.  There is room for physical illness.  Then you’re focused on fighting the illness and there’s still no room for success.

Cleanliness isn’t just about the physical.  It’s about the physical and the emotional and the spiritual.  The spiritual realm is home to virtues, to ethics and standards and morals.  Like the virtues themselves, the balance between our three-dimensions requires balance to create conditions that are conducive to success.  To create the balance  required to nurture the path of success.

Cleanliness works in tandem with order and the other virtues to provide the forum, and working in tandem with the other virtues provides the means for the vehicle–that would be you–to achieve and maintain your best success.

Tranquility. We think of tranquility and imagine a place or sense of calm and peace and serenity.  Then we look at life and see challenges and obstacles and problems, and we shout our frustration, “Hey, wait a minute.  Knock it off, will  you?  I’m trying to be tranquil here!”

How in the world are we supposed to be tranquil in a world full of upset?  People are tense, frustrated, grouchy, annoyed, irritated and impatient.  They’re about as tranquil as a keg of TNT with a lit fuse.

All of that and more is true, but tranquility isn’t finding peace and calm away from storms.  That doesn’t exist in life.  Tranquility is finding and keeping your peace during storms.

Do that, and you’re halfway to success.

Let me share a quick example.  Yesterday, I got a phone call from a solicitor wanting money.  I explained that I had recently donated to such a cause.  The man’s voice elevated and he snapped at me, saying he knew that, which was why he was calling.  He wanted more.  They’d just had an incident and needed a good deal of money fast.  I have an aversion to be yelled at, especially by someone wanting something from me.  Yet this was a good cause.  I paused a second then decided the cause shouldn’t suffer because this guy wanted someone to yell at.  He was obviously having a bad day, so I cut him some slack.  I suggested he mail me the information and said I would look at it.  He got belligerent, pushed, and made a smart remark that crossed the line, then ended his tantrum with a “Are you going to do this or not?”  That was the one.  The proverbial straw.  I said I wasn’t and to remove me from their list.  I hung up with him screaming at me.

Now we can make allowances for people.  We can be compassionate and understanding and accommodating.  Often that exercise of self-control is mistaken for weakness and others attempt to bully us into doing their will.  As you can see from the above example that was a mistake.  This group lost a supporter.  The man lost his dignity–and I dare-say that if he spoke to others as he did to me, he’ll soon find himself reported and lose his job.

I hung up and forgot the incident, when on about my day, did my work and lived my life.  I expect he screamed until he felt less stressed, griped to someone else, muttered and muffled and maybe even went home complaining about that mean woman who wouldn’t do as she was told.  For him, you see, it was about control.

The point is I was surprised by his behavior but I didn’t lose my peace over it.  Tranquil in the storm.

I’ve had to really work at this one, I confess.  And at times, I fail.  But in this incident, I saw the value of holding my tongue, keeping my peace, and staying calm.  One temper is bad.  Two is much worse.  I wanted to blister the man’s ears and give him a lecture his mother should have given him long ago.  But I didn’t.  Hard?  Yes.  Worthy?  Yes.

It was a choice.  And I made the one I felt was right and best.  That’s all we can do.  Our best, and that’s why I chose that story to share.

We aren’t going to live in a tranquil world.  People are messy.  Life is messy.  A lot of lives are a lot of messes.  Most are out of our control.  But not all.  Our reactions, however, are within our domain.  We choose whether to fire off that hot retort or to stay silent until reason reigns and we settle back into our peace.

I’d be remiss if I claimed to be able to do this alone.  I’m not that strong.  I rely heavily on faith for

calm during storms.  It gives me all I lack on my own to allow me to struggle through the urge to blast or blister.  I’m grateful for it.

When we’re tranquil and not anxious, we’re mentally, physically and emotional positioned to be open to thoughts and ideas, to new potential, possibilities.  We make better decisions, analyze more clearly.  We’re sharper, quicker, wiser, stronger.  Our imaginations have room to play, to project, to expect.  We can focus on those dreams and wishes.  We have room in our lives to foster success.  We have room for the vision we need to achieve our best success.

Chastity. Most today see the word chastity and think of refraining from intercourse, but that barely scratches the surface of chastity.  A better, more comprehensive understanding would be in considering chastity morally pure.  That we can wrap our minds and hearts around and know that we’re getting a fuller intent.

Moral purity isn’t just having pure morals.  It’s pure motives and pure intentions, too.  It’s the absence of manipulation, of dirty-dealing, of using underhanded methods or means.  Moral purity is respect.  Respect for self, for others, for property, for everything.

A person who embraces moral purity tries hard to treat others well, to respect their boundaries, their hopes and desires and to encourage them in the pursuit of their dreams.  It means to doubt or err on the side of morals or ethics.

For example, we’ve all heard the slogan, “Do it anyway.”  Well, if “it” is to face your fears, speak out against something wrong, embrace courage, then it’s a positive thing.  Constructive.  Morally pure or chaste.  But if that “do it anyway” is used as encouragement or enticement to do something you know is wrong, illegal, harmful or destructive to yourself or to another, then it is not morally pure or chaste.  It’s corrupt and used as a license to do what you want to do that you know you shouldn’t.

Moral purity isn’t placing yourself in a position of superiority or above it all.  It’s trying to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time in the right way.  A way that respects you and everyone and everything else impacted.

If we check the dictionary, being chaste means being restrained and simple, free from unnecessary ornamentation.  If we apply this to the physical, we easily grasp the intent.  In applying it to the emotional and spiritual, we see the merit and grasp a fuller, deeper value.

Often we make things complex because we take what is and attempt to weave it until it becomes what we want it to be so that we can feel comfortable and justified in doing what we want to do.  Doesn’t make it right.  Doesn’t make it best.  Just makes it palatable because in our minds we can rationalize our wants and reconcile the differences.

Unfortunately the very thing that became our “valid excuse” often comes back and bites us on the backside.  Then, we typically ask ourselves, “Why me?” or some other like question that removes responsibility for the action or deed from us.  It doesn’t work.  It’s a facade, an illusion, a delusion.  And eventually we realize it, accept it, and then we go on, wiser for the experience.  But until we reach that point of accepting responsibility and changing our mindset, we are pummeled with the consequences of our actions.

In short, successful people are ones who are not continuously and repeatedly being pummeled.  They’re accepting responsibility for their actions and deeds, restructuring themselves to avoid those same challenges again, and moving on.  They’re embracing the full intent of chastity.

Humility. When you mention humility to someone often the reaction you get is that they confuse humility with humiliation.  The two are poles apart.

Humility is realizing you don’t know it all, you don’t have all the answers, you don’t even know all the questions.  It is not being so full of yourself that you place yourself on some kind of pedestal from which you are destined to fall.  Being humble in spirit, or demeanor, is a mark of true success.  It is respecting yourself and others, understanding your

value and worth and the value and worth of all others.

I remember once as a small child, a visitor came to our home.  He spent hours and hours telling my father and I how smart he was and how stupid another man was.  This was an uncommon dialogue in our house, and after the man left, I asked my dad why the man did that.  He explained that when people feel unqualified or inferior or uneasy with themselves, they make those kinds of assertions to justify themselves (assert their worth) to others.   They try to build themselves up by tearing others down.

It doesn’t work.  I was maybe ten or twelve at this time, and my reaction was surprise and dislike.  I disliked what this man was doing, talking hatefully about the third man who wasn’t there to defend himself.

My dad went on to say two things I’ve never forgotten:

1.      If you’re smart, you don’t have to tell anyone.  They’ll know it.  And no matter how smart you are, someone else is smarter.  Listen and learn.

2.       You never build yourself up by tearing someone down.  Instead, you tear down two people.  The person you’re talking ugly about and yourself.

Those were valuable lessons that speak to the virtue of humility.  Something else my dad said that I’ve clung to like a lifeline over the years is that if you’re on a ladder and want to step up to the next rung, extend a hand and ask for help.  Someone of character will reach back down and help pull you up.  And while you’re on that ladder, look down.  If someone is extending an outstretched hand, reach back down and help pull them up.

That visual image is to me the epitome of humility in action.  It embraces compassion, respect, honor, dignity.  It speaks to elevating all.  And isn’t that the ultimate exercise of humility?

In The Art of Virtues, Franklin says to imitate Jesus and Socrates.  Can you imagine a world like that?

Jesus was an upstart, but amazingly perfect.  He was betrayed, abused, sold, falsely accused, denied, lied to, lied about, run out of town and murdered for doing absolutely nothing wrong.  He had every right to be bitter and all the power in the world at His command.  He could have cleaned house in the blink of an eye.  Instead, He interceded on the behalf of those who had done all these horrible things to Him and asked that they be forgiven.  That’s humility.

That’s the ultimate self-control.

He got ticked off, too.  And experienced every other human emotion a mortal can experience.  Yet He held to virtue, to His beliefs, to what He believed was good and true and right.  Humble and magnificent.

Socrates, the enigmatic and wise mentor and philosopher, condemned for teachings considered heretic but whose ideas on logic influence today.  Ideas seated in humility and logic and wisdom passed on to his students.

Both Jesus and Socrates had ample opportunities to inflict humiliation.  Socrates is a bit of a mystery, but Jesus elected not to humiliate but to heal.  Again expressing amazing and admirable self-control.  Embodying humility.

And so there you have it.  My personal take on each of Ben Franklin’s success-gaining virtues.

Digesting as I’m writing this, I think about all the research I’ve been doing lately on potential villains.  Since they are villains, the subject matter has been dark.  I’ve seen corrupt people use and abuse for the purpose of personal gain and greed.  Seen people willing to destroy millions of others to achieve their personal goals or inflict on others their personal ideology.  Others who destroy lives of those who “get in their way” or even those who dare to disagree with them.

I’ve seen things that even a writer who has written many, many books on terrorism and who has studied terrorists for years wishes she could erase from her memory.  Things that curdle blood and encase your heart in ice so you freeze out the pain of man’s inhumanity to man.

Some of these people have risen to high positions in their companies, organizations and governments.  By the standards of many, they’re successful, their acumen admired.

Me, I wouldn’t consider standing in the same room with them without my back being against the wall and direct, unobstructed access to the door.  I don’t think Ben Franklin would, either.

People who arouse those types of feelings in us, we don’t trust.  We see no signs in them of any of the virtues Ben Franklin considered keys to success  or I explored.  Which leads me to conclude that people define success differently, and that each of us must define it about ourselves and our lives to ourselves.

Others try to define success for us.  They typically relate it to money, position, power or other such things.  But Ben Franklin knew better and so do I.  If you have to sell your soul to gain success, your net worth is a total loss.  You’ve gained nothing and lost everything.

You might live in a fine home, have expensive things and stuff.  But those things are traps that can imprison as well as embrace.

Where there is no peace or contentment, where we feel no sense of value or worth, or that we’re contributing something worth being contributed, we’re not enjoying success.  We’re enjoying the physical facade of success.

But it’s empty.

Hollow.

Shallow.

Yet we can enjoy genuine and real success.  The kind that is home to contentment and feeling fulfilled and valuable and worthy.  Starting today, right now, this very second, we can enjoy true success to its fullest physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Because we know that it takes all three to achieve our best success.  That the keys to doing so are in embracing these virtues.

We know the value and merit and blessings of seeking success Ben Franklin style.❖

Writers’ Zone Special Project: Planning

Writers’ Zone Special Project

WHY WE NEED A PLAN

©2003-2010 BY VICKI HINZE

This article title might be “Planning a Strategy” or “Focusing Your Efforts” or, for those of us who tend to think in terms of war rooms and need aggressive outlooks to start the day, your “Attack Plan.” The title is insignificant.

Really, call it by whatever name works for you. (The basis for that reasoning is the creative nature of writing.) A writer must always respect the muse—the gift of writing—and give it its due.  So whatever you personally find to be a constructive trigger is “the right way” to approach this vitally important endeavor.

What does matter is that we start at the core and work our way outward.  By core, I don’t mean the core of the project, though, as you’ll see, the same principle applies, I mean your core, as a human being, because that truly is where the base point of beginning for everything about you, including every work you ever produce, forms.

So the first question in developing your plan is in understanding why you need one. And the first question in dissecting that is in asking one question: Why is writing vitally important to you?

No clue?  Well, that presents a challenge, but don’t worry.  Recognition is the hard part. Finding a solution merely requires a little sleuthing.  We can sleuth.  And you’ll have another chance to answer that question in a little while, so don’t waste energy feeling out of sorts because you got socked with the first question of the New Year and you had to answer, “I don’t know.” You’re in good company.  Great company, actually.  The company of many, many other writers.

But now recognizing that not knowing is a disadvantage, and disadvantages, particularly  ones, in a dynamic industry such as ours are not worthy of being embraced, let’s vote to ditch this one. Exploring is a great place to start.

As I mentioned, I often encounter writers who have not asked themselves that question—Why is writing vitally important to me?—or they have asked and accepted superficial, skin-deep answers. The wise writer will dig deeper, for in our motivation rests our dedication. And we all know writing well requires a supreme amount of dedication.

Feeling compelled to write without knowing why limits the scope and focus of the writer’s thinking, which limits the scope and focus of the writer’s writing. Purpose is essential.

Through purpose, writers touch lives and offer readers opportunities that they would not otherwise have. Opportunities to have open minds, whereas they had been closed. To see something in a new light, or from a new perspective. To gain understanding and insight into other human beings, into situations, into that which before reading your book had been an obscure, unknown entity to the reader. (Remember, what is common to you is often alien, unexplored, or not fully understood as significant to others.)

Through purpose, the writer also grants him or herself the ability to feel fulfillment from what s/he writes. If you have no idea what you hope to achieve, how will you know if you have achieved it? How will you know whether or not you’ve conveyed a constructive means in your work to depict that achievement? How will your readers know it?

Let’s explore what happens when you, the writer, lack that fulfillment. We all know that writing requires an enormous amount of self-discipline. You must choose to get up and get to the computer, the typewriter, or the pad and write. No one is standing over your shoulder forcing you. Starting a book is easy. It’s finishing it that’s the hard part. So what inspires you to finish?

Some will say, “I have to see what happens.” Others, “I just want to finish the blasted thing.” Still others find a myriad of responses somewhere in between, some resonating of being unable to sell anything but a finished product, some at needing to put closure to this project before beginning another with greater financial or artistic opportunities. But these responses too are skin deep.

When you get down to the core, what makes a writer finish a book is discipline. And like all other life skills, discipline must be respected, and honing it requires understanding it. In that understanding is the seed for purpose in your writing.

Purpose gives the writer the motivation to adopt discipline. Discipline maintained feeds the writer gains (in the form of seeing the book develop and the pages mount) and that feeds the writer’s sense of purpose being pursued and fulfilled, which gives the writer a deeper sense of commitment. That commitment builds momentum, which generates its own enthusiasm and energy, and leads to a greater dedication to purpose, completing the circle.

If you were to write out the process simply, it would read something like:

Purpose = motivation = discipline = commitment = momentum = purpose.

That’s why knowing your personal purpose for writing is essential. It drives 
what you write. How you write it. Who you have say what you want said, and how you choose to show it. The same principle applies to each writing project, be it book or short story or article.

For the project and for the writer, the human being of the writer, the question remains the same: What do you have to say that you want others to hear? Why?

Despite the professions of some, shall we say, less than generous souls, writers tend to be very human. As human beings, we all want to make a difference. We want to know that our lives mattered. Our work mattered. At the end of our lives, we want to look back and see that we’ve made a difference, served some purpose, and achieved something.

The nature of that “something” varies from person to person. (And we’re grateful for that variety; it expands everyone’s horizons!) It’s our job to find our own personal “it,” to empower it, utilize it so that at the end of our days, when we look back, as everyone inevitably does, we don’t see the one thing no one wants to see: regret.

That’s the value in seeking our purpose. In knowing what we hope to achieve. Now, don’t be misguided into thinking that getting a grasp on your purpose must be some mystical, complex maze. It doesn’t work that way. Norman Vincent Peale put the whole process quite succinctly when he said: you can’t have everything you want, but you can have what you want most.  So . . .

•    What do you want most?

•    What do you want most as a human being?

•    What do you want most as a writer?

•    What do you want most to convey to the reader in your next book?

Responding to those questions collectively can make clear to you your purpose–and reveal the direction and purpose in your novel. Awareness of these purposes keeps you on track and the work on track, and so your motivation is established and understood, and the momentous process begins.

Again, I ask you: Why is writing vitally important to you?

I offer this advice: Pause here and dig. Deeply.

By now, I hope you’ve explored the questions to you and you can answer this question:  What do you want most as a person, as a writer?

If you have explored and you can answer that question, then you now know your purpose—and the goal you must master to feel fulfilled as a writer and a human being.

This kind of “soul” work, while vital, is often uncomfortable. We drag out things 
from our innermost recesses and put them under a microscope. We see things we like, but we also see things we don’t like.

Human beings typically prefer not to see uncomfortable things in themselves, and writers get a double-dose of that dislike. As humans and as creative artists.

Because we’re creative artists, an enormous amount of “us” goes into our crafting a cohesive and believable “something out of nothing” book.  To be cohesive, we must write with brutal honesty.  Even lies (that are convincing) have seeds of truth in them.  And to be believable, we’re required to write with authority and conviction.  (Nothing wishy-washy creates or maintains the fictional dream.)

Yet when we see our flaws, we run the risk of having them magnify before cast doubt and us on our ability to create our fictional worlds.

This creative-mind challenge can be a major obstacle to writers. It can make them frigid writers, make them afraid to commit to essential novel (or career) decisions, make them afraid to take a creative stand.

That fear and those obstacles have a dastardly impact because writers make decision upon decision in creating a novel. So how can we take this honest look inside and not create the obstacles?

We have to have the courage to ditch the fear.

A helpful way to go about that is to look at what we as writers do NOT have to do:

We don’t have to become frigid writers, or be afraid to commit, or be afraid to take risks or creative stands.  We can choose to avoid these negative things.

We don’t have to knuckle under and be afraid to explore because we fear what we’ll learn.  Some say that all of fiction is about the human condition.  Writers are human, too.  We can choose to explore our own human condition and trust that what we learn will give us greater insights into ourselves and others.

We don’t have to reconcile ourselves to never writing the best book possible because we know that to do so, we have to be open from the soul out in our writing to achieve our best.   We can choose to take the risks, expose the soul.

We don’t have to suffer self-condemnation—the worst criticism of all. The kind that cuts so deep a reviewer, an editor, a publishing house, a reader could never reach them.  We can acknowledge errors, forgive ourselves, and press on.

We don’t have to do any of those things or make any of those choices.  Yet the obstacles are real, and doing nothing leaves writers—all writers—in the middle of what seems to be a dilemma.

This dilemma holds true for all writers, regardless of where they are on the writing or selling ladder:  a brand new writer, one with three or four books who is building a base and career, or a well-established Times best-selling author.  No writer is exempt from fear or from obstacles.

Now why is that so?  And how can we make these unavoidable obstacles less frightening and disruptive?

Understanding is the key.  Understanding that, regardless of position or status, as people, we change. What we considered of vital importance at one point in our lives/careers, we now consider just one of the challenges and/or perks or costs of doing business. What we considered trivial at a specific point, as we grow, becomes more important.

Let’s look at an example, using the career of one commercial fiction writer.  (Note that the writer’s focus, fears, and challenges change but are always present in some form.)

As a new author:  When you’re writing your first novel, your main goal is to write a book, and to write it well.  You focus intently on craft and, once it’s written, you give attention to selling the book. To protect your interests, you must study the business and industry.

As the author of four books:  You’re building a decent reader base, and you’re moving up the publisher’s list. You’ve learned a lot about what happens to your book inside the publishing house and how the business works.  Now, when you write the book, you do so knowing a great deal more about craft and how you work best. You’re studying more advanced writing techniques, and it’s evident to you now that writing is a craft that can never be mastered.  Not just by you, but by anyone.

You’ve written books before and you’re developing a pattern, adopting methods of writing that work well for you.  You’ve also screened out methods that don’t work for you.  You know that writing a book isn’t easy, it’s challenging and it will always be challenging.  But writing a book is now a familiar procedure.  You know that you can do it because you have done it before—and you have finished other books.  There is no doubt in your mind that you can also finish THIS book.

Now your publisher wants to send you on tour. You’ve got to go to bookstores in different cities, do radio spots and TV spots and news interviews, and perhaps give short talks here and there along the way.  This “interviewing” and “speaking” business is new to you.  It’s unfamiliar.  You’re trying not to panic, but it’s clear that you have to move outside your comfort zone.  You focus serious attention on marketing and doing interviews and on public relations.  It’s imperative that you learn to handle this new challenge well.

Now, you’ve written more books, you’ve moved up the publishing ladder, and you’ve made the bestseller list.  You’ve hit the TIMES!  Here, you’re confronted with still a deeper layer of the proverbial onion that holds an enormous potential for fear and obstacles, and self doubt.  (I’ve yet to meet a first-time bestseller who doesn’t doubt it was a mistake.  Or an author who has had multiple bestsellers who doesn’t worry that the new book will perform as well, be as well received, as successful as the last or another previous book.)  And once again, you’ve got to tread outside your comfort zone to gain the skills you need to handle yourself comfortably and successfully.

My point is, that with each change in your career status, you change as a person. Hopefully, you’ve become more confident in your craft and business skills. You’ve experienced new things, gained new skills (necessity forces that), and that, too, changes you.  Every experience we have alters our perspective as a human being.  And you can’t alter the human being without altering the writer inside that human being, too.

So how do you tread through this myriad of “discomfort” zones successfully? The answer is surprisingly simple. Mindset.

A creative mind is adventuresome and constructive. Don’t you love the idea of nothing becoming something? Writers feel that with every book. So extend the experience you gained in respecting your creativity to your career. (“Something good CAN come of this hard look into my deepest self.”)

Use it. Not just in writing the book, but in compiling, crafting and developing your career strategy.

Treading into a discomfort zone—which can be anything outside the realm of your current experience–doesn’t have to be a painful act, though sometimes it is. It can be scary but it’s always beneficial in the long run. All it takes is a positive mindset, a marrow-of-your-bones belief that good will come of it. An unshakable awareness that by pulling out those skeletons—those flaws we hate to see—and subjecting them to intense scrutiny, we gain. And we do.

We gain insight and understanding, and (this surprised me) the deep insight can be extremely cathartic.

This is really personal, but let me give you an example of what I mean. I write healing books. Regardless of genre, I write books wherein a character heals internally. That’s my author theme. Healing books.

Do explore and see the common thread all your books have. Every author, whether s/he realizes it or not, has an author theme. Working with yours and not against it assures you of writing your strongest and best work, and (I’ll warn you now), these are the most difficult books for you to write. Bare truth always demands our respect. Your theme is in every book, so take a look and see what every one of your books has in common.

Hint: it’s typically an emotional thread like healing, or redemption, or protecting.

So I write healing books. And in my first marriage, I was a victim of domestic violence. While I talk openly about it (I believe that’s the only way to break the cycle), I only wrote about it passively.  In the books, the abuse had already happened and was over.

I did a series of these books—Seascape Series. In none of them did I write about abuse actively happening. I couldn’t. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was hiding from the hurt. The memories. Translation: this was a major “discomfort zone” for me, so I avoided it. I could write about the experience of having abuse in my past with authority and conviction, but not about it happening now, in the present story.

When I discovered this—that I was hiding—I stepped out of my comfort zone and into discomfort.  I wrote about active abuse in ALL DUE RESPECT.

Now realize, I’ve been remarried to a wonderful man for nearly 25 years. It took me a long time to figure this out; what I was doing, I mean.  And ALL DUE RESPECT was hands down the most difficult book I’ve ever written. I guess I’ve done about 30 or so books now, and this one was by far the most challenging. Why?

Because during the writing, I remembered and relived and endured the experiences again. And during the writing, when someone approached me from behind, I did jump out of my skin. I’d catch myself backing up against walls to avoid the “sneak attacks.” All the old stuff I haven’t thought about for years came back, and it hurt.

Yet, I saw things differently. Time and experience had changed the view. And while, for a few weeks after I finished the book, I was still jumpy, I wasn’t terrified to the bone anymore. It—the abuse—had lost its power over me.  A power I hadn’t realized it still held.

And then the book came out and the most magnificent thing happened: a reader wrote me a letter saying I’d written the story of her life. If my character—a woman I, the writer, had created out of thin air (and perspective and experience)—could find a way out of the situation without being destroyed, then the reader felt she could, too.

Healing books. She felt she could be healed. Me, too.

So that’s the bonus in pulling out the scope and looking at those rough spots inside us. They’re hard, they sometimes hurt, but they help, too. Readers and you.

Now we see the distinct correlation and value of purpose and fulfillment in our lives, and how that translates to purpose and fulfillment in our work.

I want to reiterate that this exploration inside the writer and the human being can’t be done once and forgotten. With every experience, we grow and change, and we determine whether those changes are constructive or destructive.

No one else gets to make that choice for us. We make it (and too few remember that avoiding making a choice IS making a choice). Far too many writers forget that.

It’s said, that is the base reason for the high rate of alcohol and substance abuse for writers. That, in my humble opinion, is because having a creative mind opens the writer’s soul and we mentally and emotionally experience our stories.

This means we have to have broad shoulders and deal with conflicts and crises. Conflicts are, after all, the spines of our stories and nothing we can dismiss and still have books. Yet, particularly early on, in trying to market our works or get them published, we hear “no” from editors and agents far more often than we hear “yes.”

Rejection is hard for even the heartiest of souls to bear when it comes over and over again and acceptance and/or appreciation is minute or absent in our lives. But if we are centered by our purpose and choose to deal constructively with these challenges—where we feel something “good” can come of them—then we’re afforded the protection of personal fulfillment and feeling we’re making a difference. That makes us far less likely to abuse anything, and far more likely to enjoy renewed determination to achieve our goals. I can’t stress enough the importance of that to all writers.

I’d also like to expose a myth. Some writers, especially early on in their careers, think selling and money will be enough. That gaining fame and fortune equals fulfillment. That isn’t true, and you need to know and believe it.  It isn’t enough and it doesn’t fulfill you.

Fame and/or fortune might make your life physically more comfortable, and it might or might not help you emotionally, but neither one will do a thing for you spiritually. If you deem what you’re writing—not editors, reviewers, or readers, but you, the writer—to be destructive, it could harm you spiritually, but neither fame nor fortune will satisfy you. That takes purpose and a sense of fulfilling that purpose, or gaining ground on a path toward fulfillment.

Now why is that?

Again, the answer is amazingly simple, just not something we’ve slowed down and thought about much in the realm of how it relates to our work. So let’s do that now.

As human beings, we know we’re three-dimensional people: physical, emotional, and spiritual. If you think of yourself as a three-legged stool and each of these three aspects as a separate leg, it’ll be easy to visualize what happens if you short yourself on any one of the three. You wobble and topple over. A writer needs balance. Balance facilitates harmony. And harmony facilitates a great environment for creativity.

Understand that I’m not saying your life has to be tootling along and everything going well and there are no bumps in your life’s road. That isn’t going to happen—and hope it doesn’t: What would arouse your passion to write about anything?  What I am saying is that you need to seek that balance in dealing with challenges that arise.

To do that, ask yourself a simple question: Is this action/reaction constructive?

Test it to the physical, the emotional, and to the spiritual sides of yourself. If the action/reaction passes the test, do it. If not, dig deeper for a more constructive solution.

In ALL ABOUT WRITING, I wrote about common sense guides that, when I lectured on them, became referred to by listeners as “keys to success.”  For space reasons, I can’t explore them in depth here, but I’ve tried to incorporate the principles, as they pertain to planning, and to give you the tools from them that you might find helpful.

If you have taken the time to develop and write down a plan for your book, a plan for your career, that respects all of your three dimensions, then these plans will respect your creativity (which won’t tolerate be taken for granted).

Having a respected and respectful plan firmly entrenched in your mind makes you consciously aware of what you want and need and hope to achieve. That awareness carries over from you to your work, and over into your life. It aids you in making concrete decisions (to act or react) in ways that are in harmony with you individually, which is one of the strongest reasons possible to make that investment in planning.

Remember: your greatest creative achievements come only when you act in concert with yourself.

We’ve progressed. We have identified our purpose, our reason for writing. We’ve had the courage to explore and dig deeply within ourselves, though it stomped on our “discomfort” zones. We’ve discussed how harmony in the human being inspires harmony in the writer. And we’ve explored all of our three-dimensional selves and given equal weight to each aspect: the physical us, the emotional us, and the spiritual us.

All of this exploration identifies what we need to feel we’re meeting our destiny in writing. But how do we translate this need for a plan into a concrete plan? One for our career? And one for our book?

I’m going to share my personal plan so you have an idea of how I try to implement the points discussed in my life and career as a writer. Its basic structure hasn’t much changed over the years, only its content.

Some of what I do might appeal to you. Some of it won’t. Remember, you choose what goes into your plan and how you use it. You choose what things level the three-legs of your individual stool.

Some call this a plan. Some call it a goals list. Some call it an annual strategy report. I call it my Dream Sheet.  The name we hang on it doesn’t much matter.  It is what is on your Dream Sheet that matters immensely.  How it helps you focus, elevates your awareness, and reminds you to consider what you most want matters. So call it whatever suits you, but please put your Dream Sheet down in writing.  Writing it all down gives the decisions you’ve made elevated importance.

Here’s the sample:

Each year, typically during the month of November (although with two weddings and a deadline this year, it was in late December), I take some quiet time to reflect on the past year. To look at what I’ve done with my writing—both on craft and on the business—and to choose whether or not these actions were constructive and/or effective.

Each year, I develop a Mission for the New Year. About five years ago, that mission was Aids4writers, “doing good for goodness’ sake.”   Due to your requests, I’ve kept the program going, though I answer questions privately, share notes and tips publicly and have renamed the program WRITERS’ ZONE.

This program has become an important part of the fabric of my life.  A mission should be important—not to anyone else because it will effect how they view you, but to you, the human being.

For example, 2008’s mission was a revisit of another years’ mission for me.  To build the coffers in the Edna Sampson Benevolence Fund.  Edna was my mother, a great lover of books and even more of writers.  She died in 1997.  Ancient City Romance Writers started a Benevolence fund to help other writers and named it in her honor.  I support it, and this year hope to do more to financially support it. This fund pays dues for writers who are in financial straits and who would otherwise have to drop out of their writing groups.  A committee administers the fund.  I don’t know where the money goes or who benefits from it; only that it helps writers who need help.  Good for goodness’ sake.

What is your mission this year?  Decide, and let it help you develop your Dream Sheet.

I’ve found that by setting Goals, directing focus on what I’ve done, what I want to do, where I’ve been, where I’m going, where I want to go, and coming up with concrete steps to get there, I feel I have a little more control over my life. I know that many of the goals I’ve set and accomplished, I accomplished only because I focused on them.   What are your goals?  Focus on what you want, need, and what steps you’re going to take to achieve those goals.

Understand that you won’t reach every goal.  One of mine for the past five years was to sell my book—any of them—to the book clubs.  I didn’t give up.  I carried it over year after year, and at times I sighed over it.  But I believed enough to just keep putting it on the list.  Then, LADY LIBERTY, sold to Doubleday Book Club, The Mystery Guild Book Club, and Rhapsody Book Club all at once.  It finally happened!  And when it did–wow—it really did!  Proof that persistence pays.  That goals are met on their terms in their time, but you have to give them the opportunity to happen.  You have to do your part.

Here are some suggested Dream Sheet topics I use year after year:

Mission Statement: What is the most important thing to you that you wish to accomplish in the coming year?

•    Virtue: Each year, I choose (and often have to repeat!) a specific virtue to work on that I feel will build my character. In 1996, it was Patience. In 1997, Compassion.  In 2001, Judgment.  Choose a positive influence and focus on it all year.  (Warning: you’ll often curse yourself for this. “If only I wasn’t focusing on patience this year, I’d give so-and-so what for doing such and thus.”

Also, be aware that some of these little jewels require more than a year on your list.  So you’ll have a “Primary” virtue upon which to focus and a “Secondary” one.  At least, I do.  (Actually, I could have a string of them a mile long, but I’m human.  I can’t do everything at once.  So I pick the one I think needs the most attention and focus on it, keeping the second most needy in mind.)  This year, that’s Harmony and Grace.

Writing: often we get so caught up in selling, we forget that we can’t sell that which isn’t written. So what exactly do you want to write next year? Be it a specific book(s) or article(s) or poem(s). Write it down. It makes it more real, helps you to visualize it written more easily.

Sales: What do you want to sell next year? Make a list, and be open to recognizing opportunities to market these listed projects. (Writing the list gives you focus. You are paying attention to this, and see these opportunities when they arise.)

•    Promotion: Published or (as yet) Unpublished, what concrete steps are you taking to get your name out there? Do you produce a personal newsletter, send cards, write articles for organizational newsletters?

•    Business: What aspect of the business are you most unfamiliar with? Which facet of the publishing industry would you most benefit from studying intently? Is it publishing itself? How does your industry work? What happens to a book once it arrives at a publisher’s house? What about retail sales? Negotiation tactics? Wholesalers? Distribution? Marketing? Advertising? What about publishing contracts? Pick a topic and invest—in yourself!

•    Craft Education: What aspect of your craft are you least comfortable with executing? Theme, character, plotting, description, pacing, style? Choose one, and next year work at developing your skills in that area.

•    Reading: Too many writers stop reading. Don’t! It’s a terrible, terrible mistake, because not only do you stop seeing successful authors’ methods, you also get out of touch with what’s being published. So make a commitment to yourself to read. Books like yours, those unlike yours, articles, periodicals–fiction and nonfiction. This deepens your creative well. You know more, you have more to write about. Make a monthly commitment that is realistic for you, and honor it.

•    Outreach: What are you doing to reach out to help others? Are you doing critiques? Sponsoring or supporting a benevolence project? Writing a how-to article on something with which you’re extremely familiar that could help others? It’s important to feed the mind and the soul.

Make your goal list as detailed as you like; whatever feels comfortable. The important thing is to think about these things. Choose and decide rather than just drift and feel frustrated because you’re not satisfied with your personal progress.

I have a copy of my Dream Sheet on the wall near my computer in my office. Another copy in my Daytimer, and a third in my top center desk drawer. For years, I’d tape one to the mirror in the bath, so I’d see it first and last thing each day, and review it when brushing my teeth. This constant reinforcement may seem unnecessary. But I credit it with helping me enormously at staying focused on what I want and how I’m going to achieve it. Constructive reinforcement is a good thing. Positive and empowering, and especially in the early years, when writers hear “no” a lot more than they hear “yes,” we need positive empowerment.

So those are the sections of my plan: Mission Statement, Virtue, Writing, Sales, Business, Craft Education, Promotion, Reading, and Outreach. See which of those work for you or bring to mind other sections that would assist you, and draft a plan.

At the end of the year, when you review to see how many of the stated goals you’ve accomplished, I’ll bet you’ll be surprised by how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown. I’m always amazed at the progress, not that I meet every goal. I don’t. But I do meet more of them with a plan than I met without one. And I do enjoy more of my life feeling balanced—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—that I consider a huge blessing. I hope you will, too.*

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