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Unwrinkling the Brain – Why I Write

The Morro Bay rock in Central California.

The Morro Bay rock in Central California.

Writing is taking crumpled up pieces of paper with my brain’s content on them and smoothing them to tape to a wall to review. Some are shreds of thoughts, and other pages may be creased, unintelligible content and smeared ink, but at least some of it is discernible.

If I skip this, I start the day with a head like a frustrated author’s garbage can, stuffed to the brim with balled-up attempts to convey a thought. Allowing (sometimes forcing) myself to write flexes the muscle in my brain that brings thoughts to the page in a linear fashion. I’ve noticed a correlation between not writing and scattered, unproductive days when I jump right into my email morass. I’m far more productive when I write for myself first.

I’m working on making writing an indispensable part of my life, but I’ll admit that it hasn’t been easy. Like meditation, it feels unnecessary when events in my life stack up and I get busy.

Yet it usually is the one thing I truly need. Similar to when Gandhi told his advisors that he needed to meditate an hour a day and they told him, “Oh no, you are too busy for that!” he responded,  “Well, then I now need to set aside two hours a day to meditate.” My goal is for writing to feel as necessary as eating and giving Chelsea a hug every day.

If there is one recurring theme accomplished writers recommend, it is to write every day. No matter what. Sit in front of a keyboard for an hour and just stare at the blank screen doing mental pushups to learn to write through the periods of disenchantment when it’s the last thing you want to do. Many of them describe the feeling of not writing similar to the way I feel when I don’t exercise for a few days – cranky, unfocused, angry. The morning pages from the amazing book “The Artist’s Way” hone that clarity, blowing away the chaff to leave the golden kernels, and that’s what keeps me coming back to the keyboard.

Hiking on the east side of Glacier National Park.

Hiking on the east side of Glacier National Park.

At this point, I’m not satisfied enough with my work to publish more than about ¼ of what I generate. Entire pages languish in draft form, and sometimes I’ll take an entire attempt and condense it down into a sentence to add into another composition. As Mark Twain said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Writing concisely is something the best authors do in a way that makes it seem so easy. Yet millions of words practiced daily and 7-8 revisions of their manuscript sculpt that “ease.” They don’t call them wordsmiths for nothing – those skills were honed in a dedicated apprenticeship.

I’ve found building a routine is making it easier. Headphones with classical music playing is my new muse (sorry Macklemore – you still get airtime in the van). While the morning is my clearest time of day, I find popping in ear buds in the afternoon or evening is beginning to trigger the same place of clarity. Phone on mute, piano plinking away, I can sort out things I read and conversations I have. You may sense my writing serves to share my thoughts, yet it’s also a proactive journey for me, a pause in the tumult of the last six years as I changed careers, failed a few times, built a business, got married, and designed my life to make a trip like this possible. Writing is helping me pause and sift through events and likely come out of our journey a different person.

Sometimes I think of my brain as a parachute stuffed in a backpack. Crammed inside, it isn’t much use. Pulling the ripcord and unfurling it to soar above life’s landscape is the only way to access all the connections and strings that connect back to my core. I write to access the power of cruising under that parachute canopy, to think and make sense of the jumble in my mind.

If the results are garbage, I know it was still productive, just like a hard run when it’s the last thing I wanted to do. And that’s what keeps me coming back to a blank page and blinking cursor. Even on the days where the last thing I want to do is write, it’s worthwhile. So here I am.

As my pen pal buddy Pam (an excellent writer) says, Write On!

Cycling in Glacier.

Cycling in Glacier.

Embracing the Hard Path

The foundation for the redwoods, covered with needles.

Floor of a redwood grove.

For a long time, I struggled with jealously and resented the success of others. I wanted the easy route to wealth, admiration and fulfillment. This colored many things in my life, rarely in a positive way.

The shift from jealously to inspiration began in early 2009. I had left my engineering job the summer prior and explored the Pacific NW and Canada rock climbing and cycling nearly every day for about six months. With dwindling funds and a mortgage payment, I needed to make money. The problem was that I had zero idea what I wanted to do, other than it couldn’t involve me going to an office and working for someone else.

As my insightful friend Alex Payne mentions in his great post on advice for someone wanting to work for or build a startup, some people create a business just to have one. For the money, fame, recognition, connections…not because they have an idea they’re passionate about, or a flaming idea in hell what to do with themselves.

I was the latter, and I sought the easy path. A friend and I worked on some tech-related business plans with proposed wow-that’s-a-mouthful names like TechasaurusRex and Techmopolitan. We then succumbed to the Siren Song promises of easy riches via a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) company called Lightyear Wireless, then tacked on another one for good measure. ACK. Makes me want to gag just writing that.

That experience of a couple months was short-lived, as MLM’s usually are, and I felt dirty and manipulative every day I worked on that project. Not all are bad, but MLM’s often prey on the hopes and dreams of lazy wealth seekers, the down-and-out, and the uneducated, and I was casting about a lot at that point, desperate not to return to engineering heat transfer tables. Chelsea, ever my guiding light and the wiser of our union, immediately smelled stink and was against it from the start, and she was right. Luckily, I managed to escape with only the cost of an LLC license, a few Craigslist ads and a lot of time, but the hard-core shellacking to my ego took awhile to repair. Five years later, I still cringe and want to delete this entire section, and am sharing only because sometimes success looks so easy, with no obstacles, when indeed there are many.

I’ve come to believe there is no easy ticket for creating success. There is only putting yourself out there into the world in a positive, confident way to share the skills you have to offer and develop those you don’t. After that bitter MLM pill, building my business reputation happened client by happy client, and it has taken five years of hard work to get where I am now. (Parked in the Humboldt Redwoods, at this very moment.) There were phone calls with sobbing, stressed out home buyers late at night (one later took me and the Realtor out to an expensive sushi dinner for the hours of counseling), tough decisions, cold calls, presentations to build my business to groups of uninterested people. Hard. Uncomfortable. Honest. WORK.

Anyone who is successful has failures they use as stepping stones to step to the next level, hundreds of pages of torn up rough drafts, miles of training runs, and plenty of nights lying awake worrying about a disappointed client. The grass is always greener until you step in the cow patty two strides into the next field, yet backing up often results in getting snagged in the barb wire fence of your ego. It is so hard to stick to your guns, believe in yourself, and not jump from project to half-started-project when the headaches hit. Yet following that tougher path will motivate both your colleagues, employees and loved ones, to follow you to the bare, bitter end, so long as you have a plan and a vision. They will question you along the way, and should, but believe in you nonetheless.

Such is the path of those who create and push boundaries, whether their own business or at a company. And once you get there, achieve what you’ve dreamt of, many are doomed like Sisyphus to get bored and stale and start over, pushing the rock back up the hill only to look back over a shoulder at the bottom for new, bigger, more lopsided boulders that create a new, “fun” challenge. How much is enough, anyway?

These days, the tables have turned, and in a good way. Same as Alex, I get a lot of calls and emails from people looking to work for themselves who are scared to make the move. Health insurance coverage is a big one – I should write an entire post on that. Loss of camaraderie with co-workers. Fear of failure, which I think is often confused with fear of success – what if I achieve my dreams and show all the people who bet on my failure and want to keep me in a comfortable box where they know how to relate to me? Growth can scare those around you, make them jealous rather than inspiring them to push themselves.

And sometimes, as Alex mentions, you lose friends, health, and other valuable parts of your life because of work, whether you fail or succeed. “When you’re young, friendships feel like a renewable resource” was my favorite line from his post, and I absolutely believe that. It took me awhile to learn that, and now it drives my devotion to the amazing friend support structure I’m lucky enough to have. And support they do – not financially – but in myriad other ways we all appreciate when it happens.

I recall working as an engineer on a project, a new student dorm. It was Chelsea’s birthday. A document set, which would be revised the next day by the architects and waste all my work anyway, had to go out that day. There just wasn’t enough time, and we had dinner reservations for that night at a nice restaurant. The project manager wouldn’t let me leave – he literally stood over me, the sucker young engineer – until I finished it. I pushed back our reservation twice, with Chelsea rescheduling, and then had to cancel entirely.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had to work late, even getting home after midnight occasionally. “Work 50 hours per week minimum if you want to make partner,” was the mantra. When I finally got home, it was after 10 p.m. and Chelsea was all dressed up to go out, crying softly in the dark. My heart just about crumpled.

I gave my notice to the company soon after and haven’t looked back. It hasn’t always been easy, but for me, it has been the right path.

Wishing you all the success in the world,

Dakota


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Creating vs. Consuming

Symbiosis in Jedediah Smith State Park.

Symbiosis in Jedediah Smith State Park.

I spend my days consuming a lot of information. In the work zone, it’s emails and phone calls. In my business, creativity is often rewarded with frustrated clients, so I have a ton of systems to keep things the same for every person. Which works well, and keeps everyone happy since there are few surprises. But a life without surprises becomes monotonous and suddenly fresh and new is only waking you up when your forehead smacks the table as you nod off!

Books are important for me. Blogs, books, magazines – I take in a lot of writing from people I respect whose work inspires me to be a better person, or to push myself in directions I hadn’t considered. For example, I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s latest booked entitled “David and Goliath”, with insights on how an underdog wins. Mr. Money Mustache helped refine my skills for dialing in finances, which  helped make this trip happen. Tim Ferriss of “The Four Hour Work Week” first helped spur me into being self-employed, and then to apply the Pareto Principle to my business practices to cut activities that weren’t producing results or enjoyment for me. Small tweaks in mentality that collectively allowed me to restructure compared to seven years ago when I was a fresh-eyed engineer sitting in a cubicle pondering my life, eyes crossed with spreadsheets and energy modeling software.

Sunset, redwoods style.

Sunset, redwoods style.

These days, I’m shifting. It’s time for me to start creating via writing and photography, both latent passions of mine I am rekindling. Time to unleash the accumulated knowledge inside me and share from a wellspring of coiled information. I’m unsure where it will lead, but my primary goal is to dissociate it from financial gain and focus on content that speaks to me. The time is right. We’re on this trip, which frees up energy otherwise spent elsewhere. Also, my business – finally dialed in enough to work remotely – is in a good place and I don’t wake up worried about work every day as I did in the past. Now it’s just worrying every few days – working for oneself surrrrre is fun!

This one's for Ryan and Hilary!

This one’s for Ryan and Hilary!

I’m flexing a muscle I haven’t used in a long time. Writing is like any other activity, physical or intellectual – use it or lose it – and my writing strength is currently the little twerp in weight lifting class benching only the bar. I suspect it will take some time to develop my voice, to refine my thoughts and not feel like, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “an armless, legless man with a crayon in my mouth every time I try to write.”

One hang up is the courage to truly speak my mind via the written word. It’s hard to write (or speak) that way, and doing so not knowing who will read it will take some time. Or perhaps knowing who will read it is tougher? Brene Brown calls this the “vulnerability hangover,” that feeling after you share something personal and then think, “Wow, what are people thinking about me now?” James Altucher is amazing inspiration for this – that guy puts his heart and soul into every post with more honesty than anyone else I read.

Blue sky far above in Jedediah Smith State park.

Blue sky far above in Jedediah Smith State park.

All to say that I’m looking forward to sharing our travels, and that this blog isn’t just about Traipsing About the earth. I’m looking forward to sharing the journey within the context of  our lives, wrapping in the past, goals for the future, and any fun or interesting ideas that bubble up along the way.

After two amazing days in Jedediah Smith State Park hiking among redwoods, I’m writing this from Gold Bluff Campground with the waves crashing in the background and a clear, star-studded sky. We sure are lucky with this weather for late November! Tomorrow, it’s Fern Canyon and Prairie Creek’s sampling of the redwoods.

Chelsea lounging in the upper deck.

Chelsea lounging in the upper deck while I type.

Cheerio from Northern CA,

Dakota

Watching the sunset over the Coastal Trail just south of Crescent City, CA.

Watching the sunset over the Coastal Trail just south of Crescent City, CA.