Identity Leads to Action

I’ve spent the last ten years or so wanting to be a writer.

For a small chunk of that, I’ve even written.

It feels like so much wasted time. Why didn’t I write more?

I’m realizing now that a big part of the problem was that, even though I wanted to be a writer, and even sometimes told people that’s what I was, I didn’t actually believe I was one. I simply saw myself as a stay-at-home dad. One that wrote sometimes, sure, but that was a secondary thing, no different than how I dabble in guitar or paint now and then.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home parent. It was a huge blessing for our family to have a parent home. But, it wasn’t my identity. It was something I did for the benefit of my family, not something I felt called to do for myself.

Being a dad is an amazing and life-long role, of course, but the days of driving them to school and events, days of helping with homework and volunteering for field trips, that all has an expiration date. And who am I after that?

For me, I want to be a writer.

In fact, something I’ve recently noticed is this: no matter what other ideas or interests pop up, they all lead back to writing.

I play guitar because I like writing lyrics.

I paint because I like to illustrate my stories.

It all leads back to writing. Every time.

When I left my last corporate job to stay home with our new baby, I thought I’d take that chance to pursue my oldest childhood dream of becoming a writer. It was our second child, so I wasn’t naive about the free time I’d have or anything like that, but I was naive about being able to flip a mental switch and start a writing habit.

And so, for years and years, my writing habit was anything but. I’d write in bursts of motivation and inspiration, hit a roadblock, and stop for months. I told myself it was because the kids kept me busy, or the housework, or whatever excuse I could think of. Of course, none of those excuses stopped me from wasting hours surfing the web or watching television.

The problem wasn’t my family role. The problem was the way I saw myself. Instead of seeing me, the writer, I saw me, the guy that didn’t have the time for writing.

Lately, finally, I feel I’ve gotten past that roadblock.

For whatever other roles I have in life, when it comes to vocation, I’m a writer. Plain and simple.

That means I write.

Having that identity firmly in mind is the “ultimate form of intrinsic motivation”. Habit expert James Clear says:

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say ‘I’m the type of person who wants this.’ It’s something very different to say ‘I’m the type of person who is this.’”

Identity is key. In fact, In his book The Practice, Seth Godin talks a bit about child prodigies, adding this:

“It’s not important that the kids developed their musical skills when they were eleven. It’s important that they developed the habit of identity. When they looked in the mirror, they saw themselves as musicians, as artists, as people who had committed to a journey.”

It’s the old “fake it ‘til you make it” idea.

If you want to be a writer, be a writer.

If you want to be an artist, be an artist.

You have to see yourself as the you you want to be far before the rest of the world sees it. If you know who you are, you’ll soon find yourself doing the things to make that identity real to the rest of the world as well.

As for me, I am a writer.


James Clear quote from his book Atomic Habits

Seth Godin quote from his book The Practice

Kaizen

When I was a kid, like, single-digits kid, I had a neighbor who was both a teenager and the coolest guy I’d ever known to that point in my life. He knew karate. He had a Nintendo. He had a computer. He even had email… in the eighties.

Most importantly, he had boxes upon boxes of beautiful and perfect comic books. He even drew his own and submitted work to Marvel, DC, etc.

And they wrote back!

I wanted to be just like him.

I started drawing more, practicing art, trying to improve. I practiced my storytelling, too. Someday, he would run his own comic company, and when he did, I would work there. That was the plan.

Then he told me the only way to get as good as him was to ignore everything else and draw constantly, even during school. “What about my grades?” I asked him. “You can’t worry about grades if you’re going to get good enough to be a professional artist.”

I was crushed.

I liked earning good grades.

I even liked my teachers.

Enter one of my first secret rules: I would never be good enough at art to make it a career.
That secret rule held for about 30 years.

Then I started trying again.

And not by sacrificing everything else important to me, but just by realizing it’s ok to practice just a little every day, to try and improve just a little every day.

I eventually started learning karate, too. Not because of my old neighbor, but because my own kid got involved in a great dojo and I wanted to share that journey.

Our sensei often talks about the concept of “kaizen”: basically, constant (little) improvements that add up to great change.

Now I try to improve a little bit every day, making small sacrifices for time, sure, but not giving up on the most important parts of my life. Will I become a master overnight? Of course not. And honestly, neither did my old neighbor. If he’s the kind of artist I want to be, he’s still out there learning somewhere, still finding the little tweaks in his work to make it even better. He’s still trying to be just a little bit better every day.

I try to practice kaizen now in all areas of my life. The result isn’t flashy. It doesn’t make for a great Instagram post or YouTube video, but it’s there, and it’s building a solid mountain of progress over time.

In the meantime, I just keep trying to be a little better than yesterday, leading to being a good deal better than last month, and miles ahead of last year. I’m slowly building to success—my vision of success—and instead of racing to get there I’m enjoying the ride.

And I can wait to get there.

Life goes by too quickly because we rush it.

I’m going a little at a time now, enjoying myself along the way.

Constant improvement.

Kaizen.


The Color of Water

I often forget that water can be a prism, but had a vibrant reminder this morning. I’ve been sick with COVID the last few days (I’m vaccinated, so not worried about it, but some symptoms are still hitting me), and this morning decided to push through and get a shower to see if that got me feeling better.

In the shower I was hit with a bit of dizziness, a combination of the heat and my virus-drained energy I’m sure. During it, though, my attention was grabbed by the water droplets clinging to the shower curtain.

In each, I saw all the colors of refracted white light.

A thousand captured and vibrant rainbows drifted slowly down the curtain as I lost myself in them for a moment, brief, but beautiful.

This experience was no doubt influenced by my current state. Still, it is an excellent reminder of the amazing world all around us, an amazing world ignored in the stress and rush of the usual day-to-day.

Even something as simple as a drop of water has the power to show us a universe of beauty.


Endgame

I’ve spent the last several years trying to find the right hustle. I inundated myself with self-help and entrepreneurial books thinking if I found just the right one, just the right list of tips and tricks and…

Nothing of any value ever came of it. Had I chosen one and focused my efforts, I probably could have found some kind of financial success, however mediocre. But as I bounced around from idea to idea, I felt constantly like I was drowning, everyone else swimming past with their successful hustles. I was stuck, unable to choose which stroke to employ, and so choosing none and all.

Slowly sinking.

I spent years trying to hack my productivity. Trying to do more in less time. Hustling. All I had to show for it was a few bouts with depression and a very minimal bit of progress in my creative efforts.

It’s just not for me. Sometimes, I’d realize it and step away from a week, maybe two. Then the secret rules would kick in: if I didn’t work harder, if I didn’t hustle, how would I achieve my goals? And so that fear of failure always pulled me back in.

But why?

The thing that kept pulling me back was my vision of the endgame: my ideal life. Following the example of Taylor Pearson I even wrote it up like a screenplay. It gave me something to visualize, an end goal to strive for. I read through it and visualized it every morning to keep up the motivation for the hustle.

I did it this morning, too.

And finally, I realized: why don’t I just live this life now?

Of course, that thinking might be harder depending on what your perfect day looks like, but for me, my perfect day isn’t complicated. It isn’t waking up on the beach every day and drinking champagne in my private jet on the way to lunch in Paris. That would be a great day, of course, but it’s not what matters to me in the long run.

My perfect day is waking up on my own time, having a slow breakfast, a cup of tea, and spending the morning with my wife. It’s going to work on a project motivated by passion, not money. It’s sitting in the park with a book and reading until my wife is finished with the job she loves, then spending the evening together. It’s hearing from my kids, happy in their own lives, and winding down with a delicious dinner, a relaxing evening, and a cozy bed.

Perfect.

Perhaps you see the obvious question already. The hindsight question. The question so obvious it took me years to see it.

“Why don’t I live like this now?”

There’s a secret rule in my head that says anything I do has to be for money, because time itself is money, and I need to earn all the money I can now so I can retire, maybe early, but at least not late.

Then, and only then, can I live the life I truly dream of.

But why? Why didn’t I have a slow cup of tea this morning? Why didn’t I check in with the kids more now, while they’re still living at home? Why didn’t I sit in the park and read?

If I live my life looking at the endgame, working hard to get to a certain lifestyle when I’m in my sixties, what about the years I’ve spent to get there?

What a waste of life.

Slow down.

Step away from the hustle.

Let life be the journey and the goal.

Today, I’m not going to chase my five-year plan. I’m not going to streamline my productivity or find a new side hustle.

I’m going to make a cup of tea and grab a good book.

I’m going to enjoy the endgame.

Today.