attention

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In the past, I’ve made a big deal about focus and how important it is to maintain. I still stand by my words. Or most of them anyway, generally in the same order they were written.

That said, research is showing a particular quality of creative people: something called a leaky attention. I know, sounds kinda messy.

Apparently, the propensity to shift attention often can lead to more creative thought. It makes sense to me;  creativity often means noticing the things other people ignore. And most creatives I’ve met are pretty easily distracted.

Hey what’s that over there?

Whether it’s noticing the sound of a paper bag crunching underfoot, a particular shade of blue painted on the wall, an unusual bug crawling across the table, or the fact that the man in the purple trench coat has been following you for the last three blocks—creatives have a special ability to take in their surroundings and use it toward a creative act.

But there’s a catch, this leaky attention can also become a hindrance when attempting to actually produce creative work, it can distract you from finishing the work itself—or even getting started for that matter. Hey, someone should write a course on how to overcome that. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.

As the Psychology Today article points out:

Artistic creativity is a delicate balance of spontaneity and deliberation. 

I’ve found this to be true in my own life. There is a time to be open, to breathe in the inspiration around you. But once that spark has ignited a flame, you must nourish and protect it. You must concentrate your efforts on building that flame into a bonfire, sheltering it from the winds of distraction. Like a vacuum cleaner, you’ve gotta flip the switch from intake to output. However, unlike my metaphors, fires and vacuums don’t mix. You can take my word on that one.

There are times when it’s best to pay attention and times when you’re better off taking a rain check on it. It takes time and practice to learn the difference. Still, there’s nothing keeping you from trying it now.

But first, I recommend ditching that trench-coated creeper on your trail. Based on his fashion sense, he’s either up to no good or he’s a distant relative of Grimace. Either way, not one to be trusted.

agency

How much control do you really have over your own life?

That’s a tough one. It’s a question I’ve often wrestled with and I’m not going to pretend I’ve found the perfect answer. 

I can tell you this much: it’s somewhere between absolute control and none at all.

I know. Helpful, right?

There’s a benefit to finding the balance here. If you believe you have no control, you might wonder what the point is in trying. If you think you have total control, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed when, inevitably, things don’t go your way.

Somewhere, there is a place of healthy surrender that allows you to accept what you can’t change and a determination to change what you can.

If this is sounding familiar to you, it’s likely because I’ve touched on it before.

There’s a word that’s come up a lot this past year, one I’ve rested my thoughts upon like a bag of potatoes on a scale. The word: Agency.

Just what is agency?

From wikipedia, agency is:

The capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Even in Christian circles (and squares too) there are some major disagreements on how much is up to us. Is God doing everything here or do I have some say in the matter? It all comes down to agency.

In story writing, the necessity to create characters with agency comes up again and again. Characters with strong desires and inner drives—the kind that make things happen—tend to be more interesting than those who just get bullied around by the plot and don’t put up a fight.

Indeed, some of the best stories (in my opinion, and probably yours as well) are those in which the protagonist refuses to back down or give up the fight, no matter how grim the odds. The movies IP Man and Unbroken come to mind here. Sorry, Japanese, you don’t get a lot of love in either of those. Does it help if I say Studio Ghibli is amazing? I mean, come on, a cat bus? Wow.

Where were we? Oh yeah, so where does agency come from? Do we muster it up ourselves or is it granted to us from a higher power? Why do some seem to have more of it than others?

Quite frankly, my dear, I’m not quite sure. There is much to consider about agency.

Like most things, it’s helpful to start with a few investigative questions:

What does agency look like in your life and in the lives of people around you?

Is it something you strive for?

Do you take responsibility for your actions?

Do you own the work you do?

Is anything truly yours?

Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But it’s something to think about isn’t it?

How about this: when I figure it all out, I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m going to try my darnedest to do my best at the things that matter most. But at the same time, I want to work on being humble and thankful for even getting the opportunity to try. 

Can any of us really say we’re the masters of our destiny? Or maybe secret agents of agency?

I have my doubts, but, at the end of the day, I’m just glad to be here and I’m glad to be me. And I’m glad you’re here too.

pain zone

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There’s the cone zone and the danger zone. But what about the pain zone?

Let’s be honest, no one really likes pain, at least not when it’s happening to them. Let me rephrase that, no sane person likes pain. I myself happen to have a very strong aversion to the stuff. I must be quite sane.

Pain is not fun. Pain is not enjoyable. Pain is highly unpleasant.

However, pain is a great indicator when something is wrong. Those who are unable to experience pain often end up causing themselves severe damage. They are a danger to themselves.

But what about those unwilling to experience it? It’s another sort of danger.

For many, pain is a limiter. Once they reach the threshold of pain, they stop. For others, it’s an open invitation.

After reading this post from Pressfield (who else?), I can’t stop thinking about what it means to be deep in the pain zone, and how to willingly stay there.

It’s a very short post, but in case you just can’t be bothered, here’s the gist: the difference between someone who is good and someone who is great is their capacity to go deeper into the pain zone and stay longer.

Personally, I’ve been holding this thought while doing my regular sets of pushups. Even when it’s burning and I want to collapse to the floor, I think, can I stay in the pain zone a little longer? Can I do just a few more?

Not all pain is physical. Indeed, some of the greatest pains can’t be felt in the normal sense. 

How many get stuck, unwilling to press on because their own personal pain zone is too much for them to bear? 

Does that pain zone keep you from accomplishing your goals and reaching your dreams? Does it leave you stuck in Decent-ville, right outside the threshold of Great-topia?

I invite you to feel a little bit more of that burn, to let the sting endure just a moment longer before you back down. Then, when you come back to it again, stronger than before, go just a little further. 

Is it fun? Heck no. But when you learn how to endure and you finally watch your  pain lead to progress, you’re gonna smile through the tears.

self check

When our daughter is getting out of control, my wife will often pull her aside and lovingly suggest (or strongly require) that she do a “self check”.

The self check is a reminder to pause and reassess how things are going, whether or not she’s behaving the way she ought. Sure, it doesn’t always work, and it’s still her call whether she’s going to make the right decision, but it often helps bring her back from the edge. It helps us temper our own anger as well.

The self check can be a handy practice, not just for kids on the verge of crazy, but also for your own personal discipline.

I’ve been reading through Dr. Wayne Andersen’s promotional booklet Stop. Challenge. Choose. It’s mostly about recognizing our habits and turning the unhealthy ones into healthy ones. At least, that’s what the parts I’ve read are about.

It’s Andersen’s own brand of the self check:

-Pause when you’re faced with a choice that could lead to unhealthy action.

-Confront the temptation by considering whether it will lead you in the direction you want to go.

-Make a decision.

Besides just examining my daily habits, I’ve been trying to pause and do my own form of self check. At present, I’m focusing on my posture (it can get pretty bad) and breathing.

At different times throughout the day, I’ll do a self check to assess where I’m at and what sorts of thoughts I’m holding. Then I’ll straighten my back, and breathe deep. It actually makes a difference. I’ve noticed I can think more clearly and just feel better and more emotionally stable.

I’ve even found it helps promote creative thought as I end up being less distracted and more open to new and exciting ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy to remember to do this and it’s not like I’m transported to some happy place where everything’s peachy and I’m floating on a cloud. But at least I come away a little more refreshed and with a better perspective.

So, next time you feel out of control or faced with temptation, try a self check. Take a little break and a big breath. Think about where you’re heading. Examine your thought patterns. Then straighten up and press on (hopefully in a better direction).

practice round

While playing board games—something I try to do regularly—there’s a little tactic I’ve found helpful for new players: the practice round.

When one or more people are unfamiliar with a particular game, it’s useful to play a round or two of a pretend game so they can get some idea of the rules and strategy of the game. Then the pretend game is over and the real game starts as if the practice had never happened. This helps beginners avoid making costly mistakes right at the start.

Now, I don’t do this all the time. Some games are easy enough even for the uninitiated. But some players will request a practice round and sometimes I’ll suggest it  for more complicated games or when I know the person playing may need a little help.

Practice rounds are great and occasionally they’ll go well enough that the players decide to just continue on as a real game rather than starting over. But I’ve never just stopped playing a game after a practice round. Any game worth playing is worth playing for real, right up until the end where a winner is determined.

When it comes to the creative calling, there are those who live in a continual state of practice round and those who play for real, win or lose.


I’m currently reading Pressfield’s The War of Art and in it he writes about the difference between the professional and the amateur. I think the practice round serves as an excellent example of an amateur’s mindset.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a time for practice rounds, a time to test the waters and see if you’re ready to commit to learning a craft. But at some point you’ve got to decide whether you’re going to lay it down or go all in.

I spoke with a friend a few weeks ago who told me of the expensive recording equipment he’d purchased in order to begin making films for his business. It was a big cost, and he hadn’t anticipated some of the purchases. Still, he knew it was necessary if he was going to make top-notch videos for his work.

There’s no doubt in my mind whether or not he was serious about his pursuit. For him, practice time had ended and the games had begun.

I’d also like to point out that I’m not dogging on practice itself. The time and patience it requires to learn a new skill through repetition is all part of the game. What I am saying is that you won’t create something worthwhile by merely dabbling. You’ve got to get serious.

I once heard Brandon Sanderson relate the act of creative writing to a performance art, something you rehearse over and over until you’ve got it down just right.

Perhaps every creative undertaking is a performance in some way, even when the creator is both actor and audience. It’s a determination to go through your lines, reveal the inner workings of your character, and tell your story the best way you know how.

Even if it’s all an act, it’s not just for show. Whether you’re memorizing your lines and placement, sitting down to write the next scene in your book, or trekking around town with a camera and microphone for interviews, it’s all part of the buildup to the big finale, the final score.

Sure, commitment is hard. Games take time to learn and play. Any game worth playing has risk—the possibility of losing. But that’s what makes the win feel so good. Even a loss can be a valuable lesson, one that’ll equip you for the next game. 

When you really love the game, you have fun playing no matter what the outcome. Because sometimes a win is more than just a victory, it’s knowing you played the game well.

Besides, nobody wins in the practice round.

positive

Whether you’re still holding strong to your New Years commitment, or you’re just trying to be a committed person in general, your attitude will have a major impact on the results.

Some say attitude is everything. I don’t think I’d go that far, but it is super important.

The way you feel about a thing or task has a big impact on how you treat it. If keeping to that low-carb diet seems impossible, you won’t do it. If you don’t think you can become a better pickleball player, you probably won’t. But if you look at such activities and habits with a hopeful, expectant attitude then you’ll likely stick to them and improve.

The sage words from Diamond Dallas Page in his yoga video series keep forcing their way in my thoughts,

“If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Just after that, the venerable DDP turns and looks straight into the camera (I mean, your soul) and says, “Come on, you can do this!”

You know what, he’s got a point, even if his coaching methods are a bit cheesy. Then again, he’s buff and healthy, so he probably knows what he’s talking about.

When it comes to animals and children, positive reinforcement has often shown to be a more effective training method than the negative version. It helps to catch them doing the right thing and heap on the praise and treats. 

Don’t bother with cats though, they just do whatever the heck they want. No amount of catnip can get them to dance Merengue. Trust me on this.

Rewards and encouragement are a solid path to good actions getting repeated. But how often do we shut ourselves down with our own negative self talk?

“It’s too hard”

“I’ll never get there”

“It’s not worth the effort”

“I’m just not good enough”

I’ve caught myself saying these more often than I’d like to admit. The problem is, these statements only become truthful because we repeat them until we believe them.

It’s time to replace such statements with something more helpful.

“It’s worth a try”

“I can only get better”

“At least I can give it my best”

“I can do this”

Can these statements enable us to do humanly impossible things like jump to the moon? Well, no. But wait … no, still no.

However, they can change our attitude toward what is possible and get us to jump higher and farther than we ever believed we could. You just can’t know your limits until you try and push them.

What creative effort have you talked yourself out of? Why not give yourself a little positive pep talk (and surround yourself with encouraging friends) then try again? Where will it take you? You’ll never know until you try. 

Come on, I’m positive you can do this!

comfort and new

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If you haven’t heard it already, welcome to another year!

As for me, I appreciate having a designated date on the calendar to begin again. It seems to come at just the right time, before I can spend too long regretting all my holiday indulgence.

Having a new year allows an opportunity for hope, for assessment, for recommitment. It’s a time for change.

But change isn’t always easy. It’s unnatural, it takes effort.

One of the big problems with embracing the new is that it’s not familiar or comfortable.

I think of a stuffed animal my niece has—a cow she calls her “Moomoo.” It is old, falling apart, and even when it’s washed, it still looks dirty. But man does she love that thing! It’s special to her, a reliable source of comfort.

Now, there are good reasons for comfort. It’s important for children to have things that give them comfort in a world filled with new, and often frightening, experiences.

And the recent holidays can and should be a time of comfort and joy to you. It should be a time to relax and take a break from the daily grind and instead enjoy the company of loved ones.

But, after all that, there comes a time to leave the old and comfortable at home and head out in exploration of the strange and new. 

Do you know any adults who are still clinging to those tattered old comfortable things in their lives, refusing to let go? Often it can become an unhealthy bond, such as an eating or drinking habit, a relationship, or a source of entertainment. Let’s not judge them too harshly, we all have our particular vices. The call of couch and blanket is a difficult one to resist, no matter your age. And all those screens with endless shows, games, and social media posts, who can say no?

Most of us will admit we know that too much of these things aren’t good for us, but they’re just so stinking comfortable. We’re used to the lifestyle they feed. Sometimes we don’t even enjoy them anymore—they’re old and tattered—yet we can’t quit them because of the habits we’ve formed around them.

And yet, change is possible. Newness awaits.

Now is as good a time as any for a change. Sleeping in and hanging around the house in your flannel onesie was fine for the holidays, but the New Year is here. I bid you, throw off the covers, clean up, get dressed, and take a confident step outside of your front door into the bright and brisk morning of new. Hey Christopher Robin, bring your Teddy bear along for the ride if you like, just don’t let him hold you back.

choose joy

How much of our lives are up to us? What truly falls within the domain of our control? It’s a much-debated subject. 

Is it simply mind over matter? Do we cause things to happen by our own force of will? Or are we leaves on the wind, dipping and twirling wherever the unseen forces take us?

I’m still figuring that out myself (and, I suppose, always will be), but lately I have been learning about surrendering control, or rather accepting my lack of control.

Whatever outside circumstances I’m faced with, I do believe my attitude toward them is something that falls within my responsibility. 

This quote comes to mind.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” 

― Charles R. Swindoll

Despite some popular quotes saying otherwise, I don’t fully agree that I’m the captain of my own destiny. But I can be at the helm of my emotions, steering them where I wish through both clear and stormy weather.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes that ship’s wheel goes flying from my hands and spinning wildly.

Maybe the whole thing is more like flying the Millennium Falcon, with complicated panels of levers and flashing buttons. Maybe I need a big, hairy co-polot to help me. Maybe I’m taking this analogy a bit too far.

Anyhow, I do believe we have a choice in how we feel, which leads to how we act. For this reason I believe that:

Creativity is a choice

Love is a choice

Joy is a choice

There are some strong connections between creativity and love. I write a lot about it in my upcoming book, The Endless Creative, but for now I want to talk about joy.

In this Christmas season (or whatever holiday you might celebrate around year’s end), joy is one of the main sentiments. I’ve often heard joy described as something even deeper than happiness, an inner contentment not based on circumstances.

C. S. Lewis talks about being surprised by joy and how it was a feeling he could not fabricate. He claims it is a by-product of something else, the source of joy.

The two words, “choose joy” have been circulating in my thoughts these days. Can I really find joy in every circumstance? When work is challenging? When I’m not feeling creative? When I’m discouraged? When I’m sick? When my kids wake up crying their eyes out in the dead of night?

Yes, I believe so. In all circumstance, joy remains within reach. 

Joy can be felt alongside emotions like sorrow, fear, and even anger. Joy is a big, weighty feeling and, once captured, it presses upon all the others, giving them depth. But that doesn’t always make it easy to find.

I don’t know if it was part of the plan, but it makes sense that Thanksgiving comes before Christmas. I’ve found that thankfulness is a natural path to joyfulness. When I stop and think about all the things I have to be thankful for—my job, my family, and the many opportunities I have to exercise my creativity—it leads me to joy.

If joy is a by-product then the objects of our gratitude may be some of the best fuel to feed its flames. If that’s the case, there are also ways we can stamp out the glowing embers of joy.

When I set my mind on reasons for self-doubt or worry, I’m led to darker, joyless places. For me, I find joy in dwelling on Christ’s coming and how he has changed my life.

I hope, good reader, that whatever way you celebrate this season, you find creative new things to be thankful for—things that set your joy ablaze. Whether joy sneaks up on you or you must spend long, quiet moments slowly stoking it to life from the ashes, I hope its warmth remains very near to you.

worship

I’ve been experiencing some anxiety lately. I’ve come to the conclusion that anxiety is the feeling everything is wrong even when nothing is wrong at the moment. At least that’s how it seems to me.

I imagine there are a few things I’ve taken in that have contributed to this: interviews with Elon Musk about AI, podcasts discussing space debris and Earth-facing CMEs, and also watching a play through of The Last of Us, a zombie apocalypse game. Oh yeah, also California fires and more active shooters. Mild things, really.

To combat this, I keep thinking of something I heard during a Levi Lusko sermon. It is impossible to worship and worry at the same time.

Those of you who don’t come from a faith background may have a harder time understanding this, but one thing I’ve noticed in a lot of church-goers is a certain attitude toward worship.

Worship is often thought of in the context of singing. It’s something that happens during the part of a service when the band (or choir, or worship leader) is leading the congregation with music. Or maybe worship happens when you’re driving or doing some chores at home and a “worship” song is playing.

That all may be part of it, but it’s not the thing itself. For instance, you could be doing household chores in worship with or without the musical accompaniment. And you could be doing them in a non-worshipful way as well.

The idea that worship is more than a song is hardly a new one. I can think of a song (ironically) about that very thing. Still, I found the notion that worship and worry can’t coexist to be a striking one. It got me thinking, what makes something an act of worship in the first place?

I do agree that all our best qualities shine forth when we’re in worship. If I’m worshiping, I’m not living in fear or anger, I’m not stressed out or anxious—I’m in a state of satisfaction and peace, I experience wholeness. But why is that?

Worship happens when you’re living the way you were meant to, when you’re being you, and when you’re doing what you’re supposed to. Many times, doing the work (the hard stuff you know you need to do) is doing worship.

There are portions in the Bible where things like rocks and trees can be found offering praise. This always struck me as fascinating and strange. How can something without a consciousness or freewill engage in any manner of worship?

But that’s the thing, a rock or a tree is always being exactly what it is—no more and no less. We humans, however, have something special—a choice. 

I’ve definitely known people who are not living as they ought, who aren’t being true to themselves, and who aren’t doing what they were made to do. They aren’t living in worship. Instead, they’re living in all those negative qualities—fear, anger, worry, and so on. They’re anxious, they’re addicted, they’re out of control. They harm themselves and harm others.

There’s a lot more to worship than all that, but I believe being creative and living your creative calling can be a big part of worship. It’s living in one-ness, centralized, being as you’re meant to be. It sounds kinda fluffy-puffy and maybe even a little feely-wheely, but I don’t think it’s too hard to tell when you’re doing it and when you aren’t.

I hope today finds you in a state of worship and not worry.

full of thanks

I don’t have anything sexy to say this week (have I ever?), or particularly funny for that matter.

For those of us in the USA, it’s Thanksgiving—a time to eat a lot of food and hang out with special people. But, most importantly, it’s a time to be thankful.

As for me, I’m thankful for my friends and family, the house we have, health, clothes, food, new opportunities, simple pleasures, and for the creative life God has granted me. And I’m thankful for you, good reader.

During this season, I hope that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you find a time and a space for the giving of thanks.