Journeys in Learning – The Trouble with Advice

Sometimes, being new at something is really hard.

It is hard to jump into something feeling like everyone knows more about that something than you do. It can be very tempting, instead of diving into that something and working at it until you get better, to try and find every piece of advice you can about it. This is certainly what I tend to do.

In some ways, finding out how to do something from more experienced people is a great thing. It provides important signposts for the journey, and helps you know what to expect, and if you’re on the right track. The trouble is, most advice you find on the internet (which is where I get most of mine!), or even in books, will not be tailor made for your needs. It is near enough impossible to find a piece of universal advice that will suit every person and every nuance of situation, even if it seems to be quite specific to your problem.

Allow me to give you an example.

This summer, having decided (rather tentatively) to give writing a try, it was my first instinct to plunge head-first into an overwhelming ocean of writing advice, from authors, publishers, bloggers, even newspapers and magazines. I soon found, however, that, rather than making me feel prepared to begin my actual journey as a writer, it was making me feel disheartened and inadequate. Take this article for example:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

It’s a huge list of writing tips proffered by successful authors. You don’t actually have to click on the link (it’s a pretty sizeable list, and that’s only part one!), because I’ve picked out just a few pieces of advice to illustrate my point:

“Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.”

“Write only when you have something to say.”

“Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.”

How on earth do I breathe life into something? Am I over-explaining things? How do I trust a reader when I don’t really believe anyone will ever read this?

Do I really have something to say? Is what I’m about to write good/important/worthy enough to even put into words?

Do I really love writing enough to make this work? What if I don’t want this enough? Am I just kidding myself???

Do you see what I’m getting at? None of those were bad pieces of advice, quite the opposite. But it’s my reaction to them that is the problem. What immediately springs to mind is not how I can incorporate these into my writing, but rather all the ways I can possibly fail to do so. This may just be my insecurities talking (when do they ever shut up?). But I’ve found that my writing (and peace of mind) is much more content when I shut out others’ advice (I’ve already read enough of it to last me a lifetime!) and just WRITE!

Now I just need to take my own advice…

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Journeys in Inadequacy

So, until recently I’d started to come to terms with the fact that feeling inadequate is just a part of life. I’ve played the piano for years, and I’ve got pretty good at it. I’ll admit (slightly ashamedly, but then again I started this blog with the aim of being honest!) that I got, and still get, satisfaction from being better than other people. But on many occasions, and especially since going to university, I’ve had to face the fact that there are a huge number of people out there who are better at playing the piano than me. They are also better at organising their lives (something I continually struggle with), are better looking than me, have more friends and are more talented in a million different ways. No matter how good I get at something, there will always be someone better.

There comes a point where I have to stop and ask myself, ‘why am I doing this?’ Come to think of it, why am I doing anything at all? What, if I’m being completely honest with myself, is my true motivation in life?

The answer to that question is not easy, not because it’s really that complicated, but because I’m embarrassed by it. I’m motivated by achievement. But not just any type of achievement. I need my achievements to be tangible, enviable and flauntable (is that even a word?), to be trophies that I can subtly show off. For example, I study French and German at university, and I also speak Italian. Now, while I did actually choose to study languages because I enjoy it, I do derive enormous satisfaction from the fact that being able to speak foreign languages is impressive. Studying physics or history requires the same effort, the same love for the subject, the same perseverance and dedication as studying languages, and yet they are not trophies in the same way. They are not things that people necessarily envy about you.

However, thinking about things in this way has drawbacks. I know because I experience them constantly. I know how destructive it can be to constantly compare yourself to others, bitterly envious of their success. Even if you’re at the top, it’s exhausting to try and defend that position, and you will discover that, in the end, you’re fighting a losing battle. Now, I’m not against aiming high. But I do know for sure that if your (and my) only goal is achievement and success in the eyes of others, in other words, collecting trophies, you’re ultimately destined for disappointment.

So what needs to change? What does my motivation need to be if I want to gain something meaningful and lasting, and not get discouraged?

I found my answer while trawling through writing blogs. In an article in one of my favourites (http://goinswriter.com/passion/), the writer, Jeff Goins, shares his own experiences of bitter disappointment when aiming purely for fame and success, before discovering a more satisfying, and more fruitful, path. He urges his readers to focus instead on the actual craft of writing, and on nourishing a passion for honing this discipline, rather than focussing on external rewards.

So I’m taking this tip to heart – I’m determined to embark on my writing journey with a completely new attitude! I will focus only on loving my craft, not on possible failures or successes. I will not pointlessly compare myself to others, or be envious of their skills (or, at least, I can try!).

From now on, I will (try to) take Jeff Goins’s advice, and do things for passion, not for recognition.

Besides, playing the piano is rewarding and fun, even when no one hears it but me. 🙂