Posts Tagged ‘passion’

one-year anniversary – why i quit my job

07/15/2012

On June 28, 2011, I walked into my boss’s office, filled with anxiety, the majority of my hairs standing on end. I said, “I think it would be in my best interests, and yours, if I put in my two weeks.”

One year later I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Hoboken, NJ, staring across the Hudson at the glow that is Manhattan.

I do not regret my decision for an instant.

But, if I could do it again, there are definitely things I would do differently.

reading between the lines

For those of you unfamiliar with that situation, here is my [poorly written] post from a year ago explaining it.

The past year, however, is slightly more complex than sitting in coffee shops in and around New York City. More than anything, this has been a year of self-discovery. It has been the kind of year I wish upon all my friends, and my enemies, though it’s not as glorious as I’ve likely made it sound.

This post is here to set the record straight.

By impulsively quitting my job, I was able to take a step back from my life and examine it as an objective observer. I allowed myself to ask the important questions, free of the cloud of responsibility and pressure.

  • What makes me happy?
  • What can I not live my life without?
  • What do I envision as my typical happy week?
  • How can I live my happy week 52 times a year?
  • Why do I associate hypocrisy with screw-top wine bottles?

Above all, I have finally been able to come to terms with my flaws (most of them). This may sound trite, but it is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I was able to embrace them, thereby becoming consciously aware of their presence, thereby minimizing their negative effects on my life. Here are my top flaws I identified:

  • I over-promise and under-deliver
  • I lack discipline
  • I am inconsistent (case and point, this blog)
  • I am easily distracted, primarily on the interwebz
  • I am selfish

On the flip side of this, I have also been able to identify what I believe to be my strong points:

  • I am authentic – I say what I mean and I mean what I say
  • I am driven to produce the best work possible
  • I am always learning
  • Yeah, short list…

All in all, quitting my job was one of the best things I have ever done with my life. But there are some distinct shades of gray to that deed as well.

For those of you looking to quit your job, for those of you looking to start doing work you love, for those of you unsure as to where you want your path to take you, let the juvenile lessons learned by yours truly help you get started on the right foot.

Because I certainly didn’t.

shattering the illusionsi quit my job

The easiest part of quitting our jobs to pursue our passions is the actual quitting. While nerve-wracking at the time, it is overshadowed by an exhilaration that cannot be replicated. For me, this made it an easy choice. But once I came down off that high, I knew it was time to get to work.

The hardest part, by far, has been the financial strain from not having that nice regular paycheck. I went from a bi-weekly paycheck with a coveted comma to a bi-weekly paycheck that rarely rose above $400.

In light of this, my #1 piece of advice is this:

1. Have some money put away before you quit your job

I altered my lifestyle but, granted, it didn’t keep me from experiencing life. I was still able to go skydiving for the first time, whitewater raft the fifth most dangerous rafting river in the world, and have my first Central American adventure in Nicaragua. But once those adventures were over, the reality of my financial situation set in and I’ve been severely restricted in what I have been able to do since then.

If you have no problem living the lifestyle of the starving artist – constantly – then this does not apply to you. To everyone else, I recommend having a little cushion before you go Bohemian.

My second lesson is this:

2. Know what you want

This sounds simple, but it’s harder than we realize. When I quit my job I knew I wanted to be a novelist. That was good direction, but the more I learned the more I realized the difficulties involved with going the straight novel route. A novel is not written in a month, unless you’re Stephen King. That first novel, especially – Carrie was denied a number of times before he got it published. So I needed other income streams in the meantime, and I needed to improve my writing tenfold before I put anything as substantial as a novel on the market that wouldn’t get torn apart and push a potential audience away.

So I made it my primary goal – and it still is to this day – to always improve my writing. To always experiment with different styles, with different voices, with different structures. That being said, my third lesson is this:

3. Never be stagnant

In December and January I experienced a period of overwhelming stagnation, resulting in my first – and hopefully last – anxiety attack. I was barely writing and had let life get in the way of my creative endeavors. In order to achieve any kind of growth as human beings, we must always be learning, always seeking knowledge. If we feel stagnant in our job, it’s likely because we feel we aren’t learning anything new, that we aren’t growing.

If we want this to change, we have two options: 1.) We can wait for an opportunity to come along and seize it, or 2.) We can create the opportunity ourselves. Robert Greene’s The 50th Law has a very motivating chapter on how to do the latter of these two. He titles it “Turn Shit Into Sugar.”

final reflection

Ultimately, as I said earlier, I would not change what I did one year ago for anything.

  • I experienced more rapid personal growth than I had in the past eight years
  • I am a better writer than I was 365 days ago, although there is still quite a ways to go
  • I have become more aware of those important questions
  • I am happier
  • And, of course, as my best friend so poignantly told me, for the first time in seven years I finally lived up to the title of this blog

Now if that isn’t worth impulsively quitting one’s job and living in poverty for the next year, I don’t know what is.

top 5 books of 2012 – first edition

07/11/2012

Last December I posted my first Top 10 Books list. Nearly instantaneously I received heaps of praise on my choices and my startlingly revealing criticism and insight. The post received in-depth coverage in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and I was interviewed on Good Morning America and The View.

Oprah even called back in December and said she was sorry she had waylaid her book club, due the poignancy of my analyses. “Jeff,” she said, “I just talked with my people and we’ve decided that, because we don’t want to miss another opportunity like this, we’re going to launch a digital book club next year.” I said, “Cool Opey, hit me up when you do.”

She hit me up.

Thus, without further ado, and among much clamoring from the masses – and Opey – I present to you the “Top 5 Books of 2012 – First Edition.” These are the top five books from among the books I’ve read over the past six months. Expect another five this coming December!

top 5 books of 2012 – first edition

5. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

catching fire suzanne collinsGenre: Fiction

I tend to stay away from wildly popular books published in today’s day and age. My thought is that a book is like a fine wine – it tastes better after other people have told me how it’s supposed to taste. Unless of course it’s Vladimir Nabokov – that shit is torture no matter what day and age you read it.

With the second book in Suzanne Collins’ now world-famous Hunger Games series, I thought it would be impossible for her to write a second book that was as good as the first.

I was completely wrong.

This second book set a new standard for the series, pulling the reader along with each cliffhanger so that we continually say, “Just one more chapter…” An intriguing aspect of Collins’ dramatis personae is her central character’s simultaneous likability and, well, hate-ability. Katniss was a selfish bitch who can’t see past her own petty desires and frustrations. Granted, she is continually put in extremely harrowing situations, and who knows how the rest of us would act when faced with the political tumult and life-threatening dilemmas she finds herself continually embroiled in.

You can read this book in just a few hours and it will be a few hours well-spent, carried along by an original and compelling storyline and by a cast of secondary characters with their own colorful backgrounds and personalities.

My only regret with reading this book is that I then read Mockingjay.

4. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck

tortilla flat john steinbeckGenre: Literature

Favorite line: “…while her knees, her hands, and her lips did penance for an old sin, her modest and provocative eyes, flashing under drawn lashes, laid the foundation for a new one.”

Tortilla Flat is likely one of the funniest books I have ever read, portraying a group of drunk 1920s paisanos (a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Indian and Caucasian bloods) on the coast of California in a similar light with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The characters want nothing more than a carefree existence, which they find through their best friend Danny, a roof over their heads, and lots and lots of wine.

The “adventures” of Danny and his Knights are not what your modern-day novelist would call adventures, but I think that is what elevates Steinbeck’s originality. Their selfishness is their primary motivator, coupled closely with a strong desire for wine, although they are continually able to justify and rationalize their immorality in incredibly humorous ways.

I won’t lie, if you have never drank wine out of a fruit jar, you will have a burning desire to do so at about page 115. DK “Coach” put it well in his review: “No one’s going to make this part of a college reading list. But there is something wholy American about John Steinbeck.”

3. The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

the burning land bernard cornwellGenre: Historical Fiction

Favorite line: “For a moment everything is as you imagined it, then it changes, and the details stand out so stark. Details of irrelevant things. Perhaps it is the knowledge that these small things may be the last you will ever see in this life that makes them so memorable.”

Uhtred Uhtredson, the central character of this series, is somewhat akin to Katniss from The Hunger Games. Caught unwillingly in extremely stressful situations, he is quick to anger and tends to let his emotions rule him. However, he differs from Katniss in that he wants nothing more out of life than to fuck and fight. The only thing that keeps him in check, besides his love for his wife, is his oath to Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, and the ruler who in the ninth century laid the foundation for what we now know as modern England.

But Uhtred, after a life-altering event, decides to go Viking in this fifth volume of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles. Uhtred, to clarify, was born a Saxon, raised a Dane (when the Vikings took him captive), and is sworn by oath to serve Alfred, a Saxon king. His loyalties are continually tested between the established Saxons and invading Danes, most notably in The Burning Land.

My favorite aspect of Cornwell’s novels is his startlingly accurate portrayal of battle. Reminiscent of Red Badge of Courage in its fog-of-war mentality, Cornwell instills details in all the right places, never being too descriptive and never glazing over too much. His balance of detail and action is impeccable. The favorite line above is from the beginning of the climactic battle that defines the fate of Uhtred in The Burning Land.

2. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

life of pi yann martelGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

One of the most well-written and effectively structured books I’ve ever read. Brilliant without being lofty, Life of Pi, using prose as the carving knife, cuts away at the stigma surrounding the all-important questions of life, primarily centered around the veracity of religion and the struggle for meaning in a world of seemingly meaningless trials – at least they seem meaningless when you’re stuck at sea for close to a year – alone.

One would think that a story about a boy surviving on his own in a lifeboat lost at sea would get boring at some point. Not so with Life of Pi. Yann Martel did an incredible job keeping the reader hooked and interested where other writers might lose the reader to monotony and dolorous humor. Granted, it helps when he throws a hyena, an orangutan and an enormous Bengal tiger into the same lifeboat.

My only beef with this wonderful novel is the disconnect between the first part, which dealt solely with the protagonist’s quandary regarding religion – he develops keen interests and loves for Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – and the second part which dealt solely with him being lost at sea. There was very little connection between the two – they could have been two different novellas and no one would have noticed. In the second half, the protagonist only mentions religion and God a few times, whereas the entire first third of the book dealt with the existence of God (or gods). I kept waiting for a tie-in that never surfaced.

Regardless, this is a book for readers of all types and levels.

1. Rosie – Anne Lamott

rosie anne lamottGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “She panicked frequently at how quickly the time flew and yet how every day loomed before her like a dragon, waiting to be slain.”

This is the first Anne Lamott book I’ve read. As soon as I finished  I berated myself for not having read her sooner.

I never thought I would read about the “growing pains of motherhood” and decide it was one of the best books I have ever read. Anne Lamott shattered that illusion with Rosie, a story about an alcoholic widowed mother trying to raise her daughter Rosie and find meaning in her own life in the process.

Comprised of a small but effective cast of characters, Rosie reveals life truths we all know but refuse to acknowledge regarding self-respect, self-deceit, fear and love. It’s a little darker in that most of it is told from the point of view of the weak-spirited alcoholic mother who just can’t seem to kick the addiction, but I think that was kind of the point. This book is about real life, and what many children go through when they have alcoholic parents.

Rosie is the epitome of Lamott’s attention to being conscious. And not simply the consciousness we all experience in mundane living, but a consciousness akin to satori, or Buddhist enlightenment. She is aware. The pictures Lamott paints are vivid and descriptive, revealing details of life I would never have thought to even notice. Her depiction of her two protagonists, Rosie and Elizabeth, cuts to the core of what it means to be human, battered by our own worst enemy: our mind.

This may not be a book for everyone – there is no action, nay there is barely even a plot. But it is wonderfully written and very insightful. We can all discover something about ourselves by reading Rosie.

top 5 books – second edition

The second edition will be revealed in December after I get back from my round-the-world smartphone tour, where I will travel around the world and, instead of signing books, seeing as I have nothing in print, I will sign people’s smartphones, tablets and laptops. This is a real thing.

10,000 hours

02/09/2012

hard work ninjaI wrote a while back about mastering a craft. Any craft, as long as it is something for which we are passionate. The sense of accomplishment and the absolute thoroughness with which we understand something – so much that it becomes a part of us – has no equal.

I recently picked up the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The second chapter is one of the most simultaneously inspiring and terrifying parts of the book. The author makes the claim that in order to truly master an art or a craft, one must practice that specific task for 10,000 hours.

10,000 hours

Think about that. If you practice for eight hours a day, seven days a week, it will take you 1,250 days, which is 178.5 weeks, which is 3.4 years. 8 hours/day, 7 days/week. And don’t forget about social obligations – family, friends – and, oh yeah! You have to make money during this time. And did you want weekends off? You can do the math at this point because the lessons from Algebra 3 have abandoned me.

Gladwell asserts his claim through the examination of influential people throughout history, notably Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and The Beatles, and discusses how, through a combination of opportunity and drive, they achieved their 10,000 hours of practice before they achieved greatness. Even Mozart, he says, who started composing music at the age of six, didn’t truly become a master composer until he had been practicing for 10 years. And he didn’t produce his “greatest work” until he had been practicing for 20.

Yikes.

a master of one

Jeff Goins discusses this concept with one of his recent blog posts, Why Being a Jack of All Trades Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be. In the post, he references one of my favorite books, The 50th Law by Robert Greene, and its reference to the same principle:

The fools in life want things fast and easy – money, success, attention. Boredom is their great enemy and fear. Whatever they manage to get slips through their hands as fast as it comes in. You, on the other hand, want to outlast your rivals. You are building the foundation for something that can continue to expand.

To make this happen, you will have to serve an apprenticeship. You must learn early on to endure the hours of practice and drudgery, knowing that in the end all of that time will translate into a higher pleasure – mastery of a craft and of yourself. Your goal is to reach the ultimate skill level – an intuitive feel for what must come next.

That quote is amazing, and props to Goins for including it in his post. He then goes on to pose the question: Is it better to be a jack of all trades or pursue mastery? Eighty-three responses (as of now) flesh out the blog post with tons of interesting perspectives and ideas, all with their own merit for either side of the coin.

What are your thoughts? Do you want to put your 10,000 hours toward one goal, toward one task, or would you rather have a broader distribution of knowledge about many things? I think in part it depends on your profession and circumstance. But no matter what you do for a living, no matter your situation, I believe the readers of this blog (you) can find a way to get to 10,000 hours if you so choose. It just may take a bit longer than 10 years…

For myself, I choose mastery. I choose 10,000 hours. In a way I have to choose mastery. My craft demands no less and I would never think of under-delivering. People can see through crap. And my shit’s gonna be opaque.

top 10 books of 2011

12/22/2011

Since July I’ve been knee deep in books. Literally. My roommates will tell you – I have books lying all around the house in varying states of disarray. If I have less than 20 books lying in piles around my room, I consider that poor form and rush to the bookstore. Wish I was kidding. “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” – Erasmus

So because I’ve read more books in the past six months than I normally do in three years (one of many benefits to quitting the j-o-b), and because I know people like lists, I decided to make a Top 10 list that probably nobody will care about.

Here’s my Top 10 Books of 2011:

10. Anthill – E.O. Wilson

anthill cover image, e.o. wilsonGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “It was his island in a meaningless sea.”

Who would have thought ants could be so interesting? This is the story of Raff Cody, a southern boy battling the insanity of the world in all its complexity. Cody is a very rounded out protagonist: subtle but complex, passionate but not overzealous, and he fights throughout the novel to save a small tract of uninhabited land in Alabama. This protagonist had a distinct penchant for compromise. Most protagonists in our favorite stories are uncompromising men and women, and people view this as a heroic attribute. Rightly so, but sometimes it’s a man’s ability to compromise that makes him heroic, his ability to find the middle ground in a very tactful, albeit straightforward manner. Raff Cody does just that. Overall, this book was extremely well written and hosted a bevy of literary tools I can only hope to emulate in my own writing.

The climax could have used a bit of work, I thought, but who am I to criticize a Pulitzer Prize winner?

9. City of Thieves – David Benioff

city of thieves, david benioffGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “The loneliest sound in the world is other people making love.”

A recent read, what struck me about City of Thieves was not the storyline so much, nor the characters (even though Kolya is an amazingly formulated one at that!), but rather the writing style. Framing his novel in the epically destitute and dreary setting of the siege of Leningrad during World War II, David Benioff paints a visual of Russian culture not many people have seen from an American writer. And he does this with a plot that revolves around two men of completely opposite natures searching far and wide for, quite simply, a dozen eggs. Easier said than done during a siege.

It’s easy to picture what Benioff puts down in words, describing only the necessary details, not delving too deep, and allowing the reader to toy with the setting and appearance of the characters, altering them to their heart’s content without losing the soul of the story. And with one hell of a climax, plus a neat final sentence (relates directly to one line in the first chapter), this book  has a very deserving spot in this top 10 list.

8. The Orc King – R.A. Salvatore

the orc king, r.a. salvatoreGenre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Favorite line: “…if dominance is attained and then maintained through strength of arm alone, then it is no victory, and it cannot be a permanent ordering.”

The title of this novel just screams “nerd.” R.A. Salvatore is an action-based, character-driven writer I discovered right out of college. I had always noticed his novels on Borders’ shelves, but when I finally picked up the first book in the very extended linear series of Drizzt Do’Urden, I was hooked. I read his first 10 books in two months and only tore myself away because I hadn’t read anything else in that time.

The Orc King is the continuation of Salvatore’s brilliance in his uncanny ability to discuss real-world issues via a fictional world filled with fictional characters and fictional plot lines. Whether it’s our inborn fear of death, of change, of discrimination, or of being alone, Salvatore captures it relentlessly in every novel. Racism and prejudice, fomented over millenia between two races, are the dominant themes in The Orc King. The reader identifies this trend while being sucked inexorably into the fast-moving, battle-filled storyline, and I think everyone who has read this hoped the dwarven king, Bruenor Battlehammer, would be able to look past his lifelong prejudices and realize that maybe his people could live in harmony with orcs.

But did he? You’ll just have to read it . . . along with the 16 books that precede it.

7. A Game of Thrones (reread) – George R.R. Martin

a game of thrones, george r.r. martinGenre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Favorite line: “‘Remember this boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need to be dwarfs.’ And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood as tall as a king.”

An engaging storyline filled with lords and peasants, kings and knights, princes and whores, A Game of Thrones has reached such a success threshold in part, I think, in that it caters directly to our classical view of the Middle Ages. Chock-full of knights in shining armor, mercenaries searching for a thrill and some coin, rulers passing ridiculous edicts and hanging criminals, and classy brothels where the word AIDS doesn’t exist, this first novel in an incredible fantasy saga is the best of all five thus far published.

Complete with boundless political intrigue, dark plots and tongue-curdling betrayals, this novel represents everything a fantasy novel should be. However, I wouldn’t have minded more descriptive fight scenes. But that’s just me!

6. Tao Te Ching – Lao Tsu

tao te ching, lao tzuGenre: Religion / Spiritual / Philosophy

Favorite line: “Accept disgrace willingly; Accept misfortune as the human condition.” AND “Yield and overcome; Bend and be straight; Empty and be full; Wear out and be new; Have little and gain; Have much and be confused.”

The Tao Te Ching (pronounced more like dow day ying) is the central spiritual text upon which Taoism is based. This book, like the Christian Bible or the Muslim Qur’an, forms the basis upon which the entire belief system was founded. While many of the passages are slightly ambiguous, especially for those not familiar with eastern philosophy, the book provides an incredibly on-point doctrine in regard to how we should live our lives simply and peacefully and “become as a little child once more.” (you Christians hearing anything familiar here?) It discusses how we should avoid extremes and excesses while never becoming complacent. Minimalists will find a common resting ground in this short book, as well: “He who is attached to things will suffer much.”

I strongly – STRONGLY – recommend that everyone read this book. You don’t have to understand everything (I didn’t), but some key messages may strike home in one of the 81 short passages. And don’t say you don’t have time. You could legitimately read the Tao Te Ching in an hour.

And lastly, probably one of my favorite quotes and one from which we can all learn: “Keep your mouth shut, guard the senses, and life is ever full.” Einstein had a similar philosophy when he said: “If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y and Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut.”

5. The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

the book of lost things, john connollyGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “He always touched the faucets in the bathroom and the handles of the doors a certain number of times: odd numbers were bad, but even numbers were fine, with two, four, and eight being particularly favorable, although he didn’t care for six because six was twice three and three was the second part of thirteen, and thirteen was very bad indeed.”

This was a book I distinctly remember picking up in Borders this past summer. The cover artwork grabbed me immediately and I read most of the first chapter before I realized I’d been standing in someone’s way for quite a bit of time. Effectively parodying the classical fairytale, going so far as to open the book with “Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin,” The Book of Lost Things follows the tale of a boy named David who journeys to a fantastical neverland filled with wonders and strange creatures beyond count. Throughout his adventure, he encounters things that remind us (purposefully so) of our favorite stories of old, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty and The Three Bears. Except Connolly puts a comic, and sometimes grotesque, spin on them. For example, the seven dwarves aren’t your typical hard-working, whistle-while-we-work kind of dwarves. They’re communists. And they’re hysterical. With mutterings of “rights,” “liberties,” and “the Great Struggle,” they clamor against capitalism and call one another comrade.

And it only gets better. No matter your favorite style of book, this one is masterfully written and will appeal to everyone. Then again, I thought that about Ordinary People. . .

4. The 50th Law – 50 Cent and Robert Greene

the 50th law, 50 cent and robert greeneGenre: Business / Self-Help

Favorite line: “Events in life are not negative or positive. They are completely neutral. The universe does not care about your fate; it is indifferent to the violence that may hit you or to death itself. Things merely happen to you. It is your mind that chooses to interpret them as negative or positive. And because you have layers of fear that dwell deep within you, your natural tendency is to interpret temporary obstacles in your path as something larger – setbacks or crises.”

This was the most difficult book from which to choose a favorite line. Filled with a bevy of wisdom revolving around the central concept of fearlessness, this book was a major catalyst in propelling me to quit my white-collar job and pursue my passion. Strangely enough, I discovered it on my then-boss’s bookshelf 🙂

The favorite line above essentially sums up the book for me, personally. There is no good. There is no bad. There just is what is. This philosophy teaches us to adapt, to roll with the bunches (to be cliche). We don’t say “Oh shit!” when something “bad” happens, but rather we see an opportunity, we see an obstacle that will only challenge us and make us better.

The book has ten concepts defining this central theme of fearlessness:

  1. See Things for What They Are (Intense Realism)
  2. Make Everything Your Own (Self-Reliance)
  3. Turn Shit Into Sugar (Opportunism)
  4. Keep Moving (Calculated Momentum)
  5. Know When to be Bad (Aggression)
  6. Lead From the Front (Authority)
  7. Know Your Environment from the Inside Out (Connection)
  8. Respect the Process (Mastery)
  9. Push Beyond Your Limits (Self-Belief)
  10. Confront Your Mortality (The Sublime)

The viewpoint on opportunity was a major high point here. “According to conventional wisdom, an opportunity is something that exists out there in the world; if it comes our way and we seize it, it brings us money and power . . . This concept is extremely limited in scope. It makes us dependent on outside forces.” In essence, 50 and Greene preach that we should generate our own opportunities, not wait for them to come along. Those who are familiar with the New Thought movement, and books like The Secret, will be able to relate to that concept.

While I disagree at some points with 50 Cent and Robert Greene’s philosophy (I disagree with most of the chapter on Aggression, actually), 95% of this book is pure gold. Need some motivation to make a change in your life? Read this book.

3. The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

the art of racing in the rain, garth steinGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: The entire 54th chapter. But, to get more specific: “It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind the others than it is to drive too hard and crash.”

If you don’t cry when you read this book, you don’t have a soul. This is the story of a family, discussed in continual analogies to race car driving, as seen from a dog’s perspective. Hooked yet?

It was fascinating, the things Garth Stein was able to effectively relay via a dog’s POV. The things many of us don’t even think about in our daily lives, the dog serves to enlighten us upon. Wiser than the vast majority of humans I know, Enzo puts forth the theory very early in the book that monkeys are not man’s closest relative, but rather that dogs are, and that, according to a Mongolian legend, a dog who is prepared will be reincarnated into a human. For scientific evidence to his claim, read the book.

Simultaneously humorous and heart-wrenching, tear-jerking and resigned-smile-inducing, The Art of Racing in the Rain will make you laugh and cry within seconds of each other time and again – no exaggeration. The best straight-up fiction novel I’ve read in a long time.

2. The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson

the hero of ages, brandon sandersonGenre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Favorite line: “‘I ask of you your lives,’ Elend said, voice echoing, ‘and your courage. I ask of you your faith, and your honor–your strength, and your compassion. For today, I lead you to die. I will not ask you to welcome this event. I will not insult you by calling it well, or just, or even glorious. But I will say this. Each moment you fight is a gift to those in this cavern. Each second we fight is a second longer that thousands of people can draw breath. Each stroke of the sword, each monster felled, each breath earned is a victory! It is a person protected for a moment longer, a life extended, an enemy frustrated!’ There was a brief pause. ‘In the end, they will kill us,’ Elend said, voice loud, ringing in the cavern. ‘But first, they shall fear us!'”

My sincerest apologies for such a long favorite line, but I can’t help but get chills when I think of that scene. The refugees, cowering in dark caverns, awaiting an inevitable slaughter. Their benevolent ruler, giving one of the most amazing Braveheart-esque speeches in modern literature. Sigh . . . ya just can’t beat it.

Brandon Sanderson is a relatively new author to the genre of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, but I have literally no doubt that he will be known as one of the best. This book, The Hero of Ages, served as the climax to the best series of books I’ve ever read in my life. Hands down. Even if you don’t like this genre of fiction, you have to appreciate the absolute genius that is Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.

Peppered with enough loss to make the happy ending realistic, The Hero of Ages does not fall short in the realms of suspense, plot, mystery, climax and catharsis. It follows the story of a young man and woman, the former a ruler of a nation, the latter a one-time street rat raised to prestige after she liberated that nation from a tyrannical ruler, as they do their best to solve the riddles put forth by archaic text, settle the political intrigue abound in their nation, and, of course, save the world.

1. Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

letters to a young poet, rainer maria rilkeGenre: Non-fiction

Favorite line: “This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write?” AND “. . . that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”

I read this book in a single sitting just a few weeks ago. I’ve re-read it already. I knew a quarter of the way through that it would take first place on this “Top 10” list. No book has ever had such an immediate profound impact on me as this one. Not even #4 on this list.

Touching upon life themes in a broad range, from love to solitude, sex to irony, loss to art, Letters to a Young Poet is a compilation of 10 letters written between 1903 – 1908 by Rainer Maria Rilke to a young man entering the military, though he would rather write poetry. He starts off asking for criticism from Rilke in regard to poems he sent him. Rilke’s response in the first paragraph of the first letter is this: “I cannot go into the nature of your verses; for all critical intention is too far from me. With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings.”

The letters go on for five years, and while Franz Kappus, the young poet, still sends Rilke some poems, he seems to be more interested in simply interacting with the man than with his criticism. Rilke’s emphasis on criticism is that only you can aptly judge your own works of art, the concept itself being so personal so as that no outward eye can ever truly perceive it how you intended.

I honestly don’t know how best to paraphrase this book as I’ve done with the others. There is no plot. There is no climax. There is no suspense, no thriller, no zombies or murderers, nor damsels or fever pitches. The only way I can truly relay the message of this book to you is through the book itself. So thank you for reading my “Top 10 Books of 2011,” and I’ll leave you with the ineffable wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.”

“Do not observe yourself too much. Do not draw too hasty conclusions from what happens to you; let it simply happen to you.”

“To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . .”

“It is true that many young people who love wrongly, that is, simply with abandon and unsolitarily (the average will of course always go on doing so), feel the oppressiveness of a failure and want to make the situation in which they have landed viable and fruitful in their own personal way . . .”
(next page)
“But if we nevertheless hold out and take this love upon us as burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in all the light and frivolous play, behind which people have hidden from the most earnest earnestness of their existence–then a little progress and an alleviation will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us; that would be much.”

“Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper people, more human people, than easygoing man, who is not pulled down below the surface of life by the weight of any fruit of his body, and who, presumptuous and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves.”

“. . . that which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them.”

experts make mistakes too

11/10/2011

I recently read a guest post on Leo Babuta’s ZenHabits blog entitled 5 Simple Principles for Becoming an Expert. A well-rounded article, the writer discusses the primary principles necessary to become an expert in any given field when he says, “…becoming an expert takes hard work, focus, and dedication.”

Now most of us read this and reply with some variation of the phrase, “No shit.” It seems obvious, but think how many people want to do things and master things and can’t, simply because they fail to put the time in. And even putting the time in sometimes isn’t enough. If I sit down to write the Great American Novel but my mind keeps wandering as I write sentence after sentence (as sometimes happens with this blog), the final product won’t be the result it could and should be. Hence, the third principle of the article: focus.

the focus of chuck norris

When I was a kid, my dad, known humorously to our family as Chuck Norris, used to pseudo-joke with me and my siblings on this principle. We would be vacating his immediate presence to do something of substance – take a test, go up to bat, ride our bikes for the first time without training wheels – when he would say, “Hey…” we turn around, at 7 years old already knowing what he was going to say, when he put up his hand vertically between his eyes, fingers together and straight, and says, “…focus.”

Our very own Mr. Miyagi 🙂

But the guy was onto something. Even as we rolled our eyes and walked away, quietly smirking and praying none of our friends heard him, we knew he was right. We just never admitted it.

mistakes and opportunity

One of the principal goals in our lives should be to master a craft, whatever you choose that craft to be. It could be cooking, making cabinets, or becoming an expert inbound marketer. It doesn’t matter. We need to choose something that makes us feel alive and then do this thing. Don’t rely on pleasant diversions to distract you from your goal and allow you to squander your time and money. Focus on a craft, a skill, a talent, and beat the crap out of it.

Enter stage right: mistakes.

The fifth principle of the post, “Make Mistakes,” was the one that resonated with me the most and initially inspired this blog post. I probably like this principle so much because I’m so good at it.

Our pasts are littered with a trail of successes and mistakes that brought us to where we are now. Some of our successes are a direct or indirect result of our mistakes.

Prime example: working my last 9-5 job before I went rogue, I made an uncountable number of mistakes day in and day out. The company sincerely tried to help me work on not making these mistakes, but they kept happening. Over and over again. If I did something well, I did something else that set me back. If I wrote one good piece, I wrote three others that were crap. It was a vicious two-month cycle that ultimately led me to question what the hell I was doing with my life, to quit, and to work toward becoming a writer full-time. On mastering the craft that makes me come alive. I call that a success. A success bred from a rapid-fire procession of mistakes.

While the road to mastering a craft is paved with good intentions, we will undoubtedly stumble and make mistakes. I make at least a dozen mistakes per blog post, but I know I gotta keep rolling. Mistakes create obstacles. Obstacles create opportunity. (insert the old adage of learning from our mistakes) We have to learn to embrace these obstacles, not treat them with disdain and frustration. When we do the latter our stress levels rise and our neurons don’t fire the way they should. But if we embrace the obstacles and treat them as opportunities, they serve a more personally beneficial purpose. According to Robert Greene in The 50th Law:

In general, obstacles force your mind to focus and find ways around them. They heighten your mental powers and should be welcomed.

In summation: we all make mistakes, we all face obstacles – even the experts. Without these things, the experts would not have become experts. James Joyce’s Dubliners was rejected 22 times before someone published it. Stephen King’s classic horror story Carrie was rejected 30 times.

What have you done lately, what mistakes have you made, what obstacles have you encountered on the road to living the life you want to live?

motivational mondays – creation

08/08/2011

creation kanjiAnybody can destroy. The most spiritually bereft can step on an ant hill, can take a sledgehammer to something beautiful, can kill another human being. Real worth is demonstrated by those who create.

Now that’s not to say that destruction isn’t, at times, favorable. In fact it can sometimes be necessary in order to create. But if all you do is destroy, whether it be physical, spiritual or moral, then you may need to more deeply examine yourself and your values.

create a character

The possibilities are boundless when it comes to creativity. One of the most beneficial things I’ve found in my life is to periodically create a fictional character. Now I’m sure some of you are thinking that it only works for me because I’m a [wannabe] writer. I have to create characters. That line of thinking would be false. I create characters out of context all the time to help me get through trying – or just plain interesting – situations. Sounds odd, but stick with me.

Take some aspect of either someone you know or just your imagination and run with it. Create this character’s physical appearance, moral stance, spiritual leaning and level of intellectual prowess.

  • Is he attractive or the most hideous person you’ve ever seen?
  • Is he moral, immoral or amoral?
  • Does she practice Islam, Judaism or Christianity? Maybe she’s atheist because she was raped when she was little and, based on that, she can’t rationalize that a benevolent God figure would exist who let that happen
  • Would he feel remorse or pride if he killed someone in self defense?
  • Is she a book-worm or an athlete? Maybe a balance of both? Maybe she got injured running in the Olympics and has to realign her goals?
  • Is he a veritable Don Quixote? Or maybe a Tyler Durden?

Let your imagination run wild with this! Take at least 15-30 minutes to create this person and simply enjoy the creative process.

the fatal flaw

Then, with all good characters, give them a flaw. No good character exists who does not have flaws. It’s human to have flaws, and we all want people we can relate to. People with whom we can share anxieties and fear. With whom we can talk to privately and feel a deeper connection. Nobody likes a flawless person because he doesn’t exist.

Now the key to creating this flaw, as it relates to this post and your character creation, is to give this character a flaw to which you can relate. A flaw that you and your character can both overcome. Perhaps there’s a girl behind the coffee shop counter you like but have been unable to approach. Maybe you have a boyfriend to whom you want to commit but find you can’t. What if a close relative or friend is on their deathbed and you can’t find the right words to say?

apply the character to your situation

What would your character do in your situation? What do you think is the most appropriate action? Are you one to take that action or is your character better suited? If the character is better suited, ask yourself why that is? Determining this will allow you to modify your own action and put it more in line with what you think should happen.

By creating an ideal, it gives us something to live up to. People do this all the time with religious and historical figures. What would Jesus do? Malcolm X wouldn’t stand for injustice so why should I? And so on and so forth.

Creation is a beautiful thing. It can be done to further a cause, to fulfill a dream, or simply for the thrill of creating something original. So use your Monday to create something. Anything. I recommend a character, but then again I’m biased.

What will you create before death comes calling?

why i quit my job

07/03/2011

I have fantasized about writing this post for three years. Now it’s time.

I quit my job. I am no longer a public relations professional. I do not live the 9-5 lifestyle.

My new job is my passion. My new profession is my will to be great. My new lifestyle is one of my own choosing.

Why? Why have I sacrificed a comfortable 9-5 job at an amazing company with a steady paycheck, a nice health/dental/vision package and an IRA? Why have I cut my income by nearly two-thirds? Why have I taken such a life risk?

my [loss of] independence day

To gain a better understanding of why I quit my job, we need to take a look at the roots.

I paid for my entire freshman year of college. No help from my parents. No loans. Straight cash out of my pocket earned by umpiring little league baseball games and working 20- to 50-hour weeks at Red Robin. My funds ran out when freshman year ended. Thus, in spirit, so did my independence.

I knew from the beginning that I couldn’t pay for my next three years, but had effectively deluded myself into thinking I would not have to rely on my parents. I had moved out. I was on my own. Mom and Dad were two people I no longer had to rely on for a cash flow. I could finally stand without holding onto something.

But my envisioned independence was not meant to be – the Rents began paying for my college education. I still paid for a portion of my tuition by working over breaks, but it wasn’t the same. I was no longer financially independent. This fact meant quite a bit to me. One summer night just before sophomore year began, I got a little too liberal with my wine and broke down sobbing about how I wanted to drop out of college and move to California. And god knows I probably would have done it if my parents hadn’t stopped me.

Thus, I began to get angry. Over the next three years my optimism transformed into cynicism. I hated the institution. What kind of bullshit is paying thousands upon thousands of dollars to get a piece of paper that said, “I am now qualified to be paid more than the high-school-educated person.” I hated the cliche that was the man. I hated authority unless I saw it in action, unless I personally saw the cogs turning.

It was at this time in my life that I started my first blog, dubbing myself a “freebird.” I determined that I would one day live without shackles. My life would be my own and nobody would tell me where to be or when to be there. I didn’t need a lot of money. I just needed freedom. In hindsight, this was when I really started to become who I am today.

fast forward

That was 2005. It’s now 2011. Six years……

I chose a field of study, pursued it rigorously, and found moderate success. And with that moderate success, I found an equatable level of interest in my field. That’s not to say there weren’t things I got excited about – I bought into it as much as I possibly could. I really did. I convinced myself, to a certain degree, that I could simply get by working the 9-5 until “the ideal” came traipsing along – get a book published, gain a foothold in freelancing, get the perfect job where I can be happy – anything.

I’ve been very fortunate with the jobs I landed in my field: I got to work for a science center that introduced me to so many new and exciting concepts and theories to which I would have otherwise never been exposed; and I got to work at an incredibly dynamic agency that is actively breaking the traditional mold of what an agency looks like. It was through working at these amazing places and yet still feeling unfulfilled that I realized it wasn’t about the work environment – it was about me. My dreams. My needs. My vision.

Because when you’re pursuing a career for which you lack passion, when you wake up every day and long to sit at your desk at home and write instead of driving 30 minutes into the city, when you cringe at the prospect of checking your email…well, that’s when you’ve reached the tipping point. That’s when you’ve boiled all the water in your pot and it starts burning, losing its integrity and diminishing the possibility for any future use.

I lost some of my integrity during my pursuit of a career instead of a lifestyle. I degraded myself, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I have grown soft and inattentive. Complacent. Unappreciative of the wonders that surround me and, more importantly, of the incredible things I can do with my life.

I refuse to allow that depreciation to continue.

take a stand

My life has now taken a new direction. This is my stand. This is my pronouncement.

I will no longer excel at mediocrity. I will no longer subdue my passion for pragmatism. I will no longer be ruled by the fear of being solely responsible for my success or failure. I will defy convention and do what I’ve wanted to do since the seventh grade.

I pursue my true goals now with a sense of desperate urgency – I will write. Novels. Freelancing. Blog posts. Anything and everything for which I am passionate. The real work of my life now begins in earnest.

Am I scared for what  may come with such an unpredictable future? I’m freaking terrified. But the scales have finally tipped. My exhilaration outweighs my fear. My power now lies in my independence, and in the knowledge that I know nothing and, understanding that, can achieve everything.

And so it begins.

on inspiration

03/04/2011

I’ve been blogging about the concept of hope for a couple months now (see previous posts). Now let’s take that concept and transform it into the active recognition of itself – inspiration.

3. the act

Simply put: inspiration stems from hope. The latter is a wonderful thing but implies no sense of action – that being its primary weakness. It’s a latent word. I can hope to write a best-selling novel, but, as I said in a post last month, this concept does not imply action. You  need a little bit something else to incite action.

Inspiration…now inspiration is coupled with action. You can’t be inspired to do something and then not even begin to formulate plans to attempt it. I feel like that’s an unofficial rule of the word.

2. a source

The only issue with inspiration is that it always needs a source – whether that source comes from something that wells up deep within us as a response to an emotional stimulus, or if it comes directly from someone else’s actions. It can be as simple as a poster you glimpsed to something as complex as a novel. But regardless, inspiration always results from something.

1. define it

I asked a few people how they would define inspiration. Here were their very scientific (and accurate) answers:

  • something that motivates me to move beyond what I may believe myself capable of
  • coffee
  • brainstorming
  • positive feedback
  • me (although I feel this was a sarcastic answer…)
  • whatever fuels your fire
  • vodka
  • guiding you to achieve a goal
  • the ability to focus one’s mind on a goal or project to the exclusion of anything else that would detract from the process
  • the mere thought of a bottle of wine and a pencil in hand

the process

Once you’ve defined what inspiration is to you (and this definition can and will vary WIDELY), you can then determine sources of inspiration.

Personally I don’t need much motivation to feel inspired – it doesn’t take much for me: one glimpse at my favorite pair of running shoes; one thought about how a character will develop in my novel; one scene from the end of the movie August Rush, or one conversation with a visionary.  This is the second part of the process – finding the source. I found at least three things that inspired me to some sort of action before 9 a.m. this morning. Think of what you can find if you take a closer look – or maybe you already know what inspires you, which leads us to our third and final step: act.

What’s inspired you today?

i wanna go crazy with you

10/15/2010

A friend told me this past summer that everybody is always looking for love. I thought it to be an interesting perspective, if a little bit simplistic. But then, most times the simplest way is the most sensible way.

Lately I’ve been listening to Tim McGraw’s new single “Felt Good on My Lips,” and it brings to mind again this concept of everybody always looking for love.

I want your thoughts on this, but allow me to offer my perspective first (I mean, it is my blog after all):

I wouldn’t say I’m looking for love, per se. I’m looking for someone I can go crazy with. Someone with whom I can cut loose, do things I wouldn’t normally do on my own, and enjoy the things more that I DO normally do on my own. Is that what love’s about?

I’m not sure. But this song isn’t about love, at least in its classical definition. It’s about living wild and free in the moment, enjoying life for the simple pleasures. Whether it be the sound of someone’s name, singing the lyrics of a song you don’t know, drinking an unfamiliar drink or kissing unfamiliar lips.

an unforgettable night

I did exactly that just this past weekend. I went to dinner with a girl to a place I never would have gone on my own (or even found, in all likelihood). We went to a hole-in-the-wall bar afterward where they let you smoke inside, and just lost ourselves in a couple games of pool, a few good songs and each other’s company. It’s an incredible feeling, just living for the night and flipping the bird to tomorrow. We swing danced, we sang, we smoked cigarettes as we lined up our shot on the pool table. It was raw, innocent and pure, untarnished by senses of self-worth, superficial misgivings and reality television.

We all need to cut loose and go crazy sometimes, losing ourselves in the lucid oblivion of present circumstance. While we’re young, be young and stupid. If we’re old, become young and stupid again, even if just for a moment.

WITH as opposed to a mere with

And sometimes…sometimes we understand that it’s nice to go crazy with someone else. And I don’t just mean with someone else, I mean WITH someone else. To feel the sun on your shoulders and the wind at your back with someone at your side. It reminds me of Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away.” This guy takes his motorcycle for a ride, stops in at a bar and meets a girl who decides to ride with him for a time. They end up not lasting the duration of the song, but that’s not the point. The point is that they had that time together in the first place. They celebrated their lives WITH someone, as opposed to with someone.

There’s definitely a romanticism to being alone, rolling down the highway with your only concern being your personal Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Here I Go Again On My Own” has always resonated with me, but there comes a time when being a lone wolf just isn’t enough. There comes a time when going crazy WITH someone else is exactly what you need.

Your thoughts?

DISCLAIMER
I wrote this post in the dead of night and in less than 10 minutes. A famous writer once said you never have to change something you got up in the middle of the night to write, so I’m not changing anything. Straight from the heart right onto the computer screen. No hesitation (aside from a little editing, but I’m an OU PR kid – editing is in the marrow of my bones. And if some grammar nut reads this and noticed me ending the second sentence in the fourth paragraph with the word “with”, shove it). This shit’s authentic. Hah! Now go do something fucking stupid, like writing “fucking” in a blog that you know your boss reads.

“it’s just good music…

06/25/2010

…if you can feel it in your soul.”

One of the best quotes from a country song. Ever. (ten points to the person who can name the song/artist)

There’s something about music that enlivens us. That inspires us. That energizes us the way no Red Bull or 5-hour ever could. That takes us to a level unattainable by mere words. Granted, poetry can have that effect, but that’s a little different vein of thought with which fewer identify. But for music…

You take a few simple words, and you make the rhyme absurd. Then strum a few basic chords for the best results incurred.

The burning, the yearning, that swells up your soul. The churning, the turning, your heart losing control.

How’s that for poetry? Hot damn I should be the friggin’ poet laureate.

Whether your taste buds prefer heavy metal, classic rock, bluegrass, reggae, R & B or any other music genre one can only hope to classify, music inspires any number of emotions that change from one second to the next. It’s a roller coaster ride minus the metal and brawn needed to build it.

the best show…

…I’ve ever been to was at the Agora in Cleveland – headlined by New Found Glory, with Something Corporate and Finch. Finch was the second band to come on and they put on a live performance that will forever be burned into my brain. Not because of the awesome music blaring from the speakers; rather it was because you literally could not stand up straight during the performance. The pit in front of the stage was  overflowing. We were drenched in sweat – not just our own but each other’s, as well. We were black and blue from mosh pits. We were screaming the words at the top of our lungs, our voices joined in one collective uproar of emotion and spittle. And it. Was. Glorious.

One moment you were in a rage, engulfed in a mosh pit where some musclehead just shoved you across the circle, the next moment you’re trading smiles with the cute punk girl you’re pressed up against in the maddening chaos, and after that you’re screaming the lyrics and losing your voice amid hundreds of other faded t-shirts, studded belts and tight bluejeans.

the only way to find yourself…

…is to lose yourself. Music provides a way to do just that. No thoughts. Just action. Just your body moving with the rhythm of the beat. It’s an elevated state of existence where your mind just seems to be vibrating in ecstasy, operating outside of the terrestrial world surrounding it. You focus on nothing, while realizing everything – a form of meditation.

Live wild, live free.

And turn the radio up.