Sunday, August 14, 2016
Friday, March 14, 2014
That's the power of reward. That's the power of habit.
A friend of mine recommended The Power of Habit for our entrepreneur/business group, and I picked up a copy at Barnes and Noble on Tuesday. I began reading it right away.
What I've found so far has been pretty amazing.
First, our brains have the ability to store and relegate things we do repetitively to the arena of habit. We don't think about driving a car, brushing our teeth, or even going to the gym (or the TV). It's a way to maximize our "brain space" to do other things, things that require more attention (such as writing blogs). We do these habits almost instinctively, and once something becomes a habit, it never entirely goes away.
But (and here's the good news) our habits can be changed. Most of why we do what we do depends on a loop that Duhigg calls the Cue-Routine-Reward loop. The cue is the desire or need, the reward is the satisfaction or good feeling at the end, the routine is how we get there. This could apply to cleaning a bed and then feeling the satisfaction over a clean room, having a cup of coffee and feeling more alert afterwards, running five miles and feeling the euphoria, or having a drink at a party and feeling more accepted in a group. Some of our routines can be good (exercising, cleaning), while others can be damaging (excessive drinking, smoking, overeating).
For me, understanding the Cue-Routine-Reward loop is important. It's important to understand our desires and the rewards that meet those. Are we lonely? Are we wanting a feeling of accomplishment? Of validation? To belong in relationship? These are all real needs. The question is, How do we meet them? What routine/habit will we do to give us the "reward" we seek?
I loved being affirmed for cleaning the house. I didn't get a lot of affirmation growing up, and this was one area where I did. The book on my bed symbolized that affirmation, and so a powerful bond was created between buying a book and the feeling of affirmation or well being that was connected to it. I remember later, when I was in college, having a longing for experiences, for relationships, for connectedness and would head to Barnes & Noble and browse the rows of books. I loved the smell of them, the new look, the crisp covers and unbent pages. I loved the purchase of a paperback and the possibility of enjoyment I would feel as I read it. The only problem was, I only read a third of the books I bought. The reward wasn't in the reading, but in the having.
Understanding this Cue-Routine-Reward loop can create new habits. For example, I wasn't making much progress on writing a book until I made a goal of 1000 words a day. The reward for writing an entire book seemed too daunting, too far away, but the reward for writing 1000 words was much more doable. Also, when I graded papers I picked 3-5 papers to grade, and then I would take a break, rewarding myself with a walk, or checking email. My wife and I have "fallen into" the habit of spending our nights watching TV. We come home at the end of the day exhausted, and don't have a lot of energy for anything taxing. Now that the weather is getting warmer, we may try replacing TV time with walks around the subdivision so we can create new habits.
The power of habit and the Cue-Routine-Reward loop isn't entirely a new concept. Ephesians 4:28 says: "Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need" (NIV). There's a rush to stealing, even a reward. It goes beyond the physical "I have something in my possession I didn't have before because I need it" (Winona Ryder's stealing $5000 worth of clothes in 2001 is a good example). There's an emotional/psychological reward. It's the reward of not being caught. While the stealing habit loop is destructive, it can be replaced, but not eliminated. In the Ephesians passage, the habit of stealing is being replaced with the habit of sharing what you have with others in need, and that, too, can be a rush (reward).
I'm still glad that the reward as a child was books and not chocolate, but I've become more aware of the habits I have, why I have them, and which ones I want to keep and which ones I want to change. Wish me well on this journey, and I wish the same for you.
Friday, February 21, 2014
In the last ten years I've met a number of people who have told me that they wanted to write a book or were going to write a book or had ideas to write a book.
Most of them have left it at that.
Usually, when it comes to writers, there are two camps: those who are writing and those who aren't (but are talking about it).
However, this year I've met a handful of people who not only talked about writing a book, but have written one, or two, or a series. . .
Some of the books are really good: good plot, good characters, good story arc, and some of them are pretty rough. In the past, publishing houses and agents have served as the gate keepers, making sure the story idea is a good one, that the grammar is correct, that character development, plot, conflict, and story arc are all up to snuff. They've also made it highly competitive and difficult to get recognized.
With e-publishing and self publishing it has become easier to publish, but with the opening of the gates it has meant that everyone who wants to publish a book CAN, whether they SHOULD or NOT. Right now the writing/publishing world seems to be in transition, where a lot of things are up for grabs. I think there will be a resettling, where other publishing companies will emerge beyond the big six, and there will once again be gate keepers, weeding out the stories that still need development.
That said, I still believe in the writing process, that there's a lot that happens in the PROCESS of writing that is hugely important. This last year, I jumped in and stopped talking about writing a book, and finally did it.
Here's what I learned by writing a 70,000 word book:
1. Eat a bite at a time.
Before, whenever I would sit down to write, the idea of a book seemed daunting. How do you write 200-300 pages, or more? I would usually get about 50 pages into a story and then lose interest, or have it stall out. The one exception was in grad school I wrote an 80 page thesis. I broke it into five sections: an intro, three chapters, and a conclusion. When I went on to teach writing to adult students I encouraged them to write a 15-25 page paper in four weeks by writing three 5-7 page papers. Each of those 5-7 page papers had four sections. "Easy, right?" I said. They agreed. After the initial shock, many of them came to me and said, "I had a hard time stopping once I got started. That really worked!"
Teaching it is one thing. Doing it is another.
When I taught freshman composition I encouraged students to write one page a day for the next year. "How many pages will you have after that?" I asked.
"Three hundred sixty-five?" someone ventured.
"Exactly. And that's about two books," I said. Immediately the lights turned on and some of them got excited. Two weeks later few of them had gotten started with the one-page-a-day challenge, but the idea still stuck.
For me, it was 1000 words. I realized I could write 1000 words a day pretty easily and it wouldn't take too much of my day. I could draft it out in an hour to an hour-and-a-half. It wasn't always pretty, but it gave me something to shoot for. Every day. Or, for variety, 6000 words a week. I didn't always hit these goals, but I learned to not beat myself up for it either. Progress was progress, whether it was 2,000 or 7,000 words a week. The point was, I was moving forward.
2. Drafts are messy.
I taught this hundreds of times, and yet I still had a hard time allowing myself the freedom to make mistakes. "No one's going to read this crap," some voice, I think on my left shoulder, would say. "You want to be a writer? So does everyone else!" another voice said. Somehow I'd get to a point where I'd sit down one day and feel like whatever I wrote was never going to be any good, especially right out of the gate. In those moments, I had to write anyway. I'd shoot for 1000 words a day or 6,000 a week. It could be the worst combination of words imaginable, but out of it I'd have something to work with. Even if it was a sentence.
It's still a learning process, and now that I'm revising there are more lessons to learn. But more on that later.
In the meantime, I'm finding that writing has become a more consistent habit, I'm enjoying it more, and am learning a lot within a community of other writers.
I hope that you are encouraged to keep writing as well.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
--Michael Drout, "Of Sorcerers and Men" (Barnes and Noble series) 2006.
My friend Eric loves reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, loves playing World War II or Civil War games, but admits that he doesn't like science fiction. "I don't know why I don't connect with it," he says. "Science fiction can be optimistic, but a lot of what I'm familiar with is dystopian. I liked (Philip K. Dick's) Blade Runner okay, and it's not like I couldn't watch Star Trek when I was a kid (it was available, at least the original), but I've always connected with fantasy more. Even with mysteries, I'd rather read an older mystery, like a Brother Cadfael mystery or Dorothy Sayers, than a modern one."
I suggested that he liked fantasy and older war games because of their nostalgia rather than an optimistic, humanistic view of the future. "No, I don't think that's it," he said. As a kid, Eric grew up in the South side of Chicago. Out his front door was the city, but out the back was an old cemetery with flat headstones, surrounded by prairie grass and beyond that, the woods. "I would imagine that I could go out the door, walk through the grass, into the woods, and enter another world," he said. The view from the back of the house seemed like he was looking out over an English countryside. Even today, he favors English gardens as his favorite kind of landscape.
For me, my introduction to fantasy and science fiction was different. When I was in second grade, I came home from school one day to find a new copy of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on my bed. I had helped with chores around the house over the weekend, and my reward was a book. Soon I was entering the world of Narnia, like so many other young children have, and, like the wardrobe, was discovering a world that was much bigger on the inside than what first appearances led me to believe. Soon I was reading the rest of the Chronicles, and then began reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
My journey into fantasy literature continued, with Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain and later David Eddings, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, and others, but I also began reading science fiction, mainly Isaac Asimov (The Foundation series is still my favorite). Along the way I also read mythology (Celtic, Norse, Greek, Robin Hood, Arthurian), classics (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Moby Dick), but fantasy remained my favorite.
Do I resonate with fantasy because I long for the past rather than feel optimistic about the future? Is it a reflection of my worldview, where I am prone to believe in miracles, supernatural forces, the imaginative, and to some degree, "magic"? Am I cynical about humanity, disbelieve the inevitable progress of humanity, or are my reasons something other than philosophical?
For Eric, many of his connections seemed to come from strong experiences from his childhood. For me, I could argue the same (at least the evidence seems to be there). Books were a kind of reward for work (I'm glad to this day that it wasn't a bar of chocolate on the bed). In addition, we had just moved to a small town in Indiana from a college town in Illinois. I had said goodbye to my best friend and two neighbor girls I played with, and I hadn't made many friends yet in Indiana. I was also an only child (my half brothers wouldn't be born until I was 10 and 12). In Narnia, Middle Earth, the Four Lands, Xanth, or other places, I could escape the loneliness of my childhood for a while and imagine I was being swept up in an adventure, with a group of companions, making heroic decisions that would determine the fate of the world. Pretty high stakes. Pretty significant.
So my question is this: Why do others identify with fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or history? Is it for philosophical reasons, intellectual reasons, or is it something more personal?
Friday, January 27, 2012
The last three weeks they had gotten no sales. In the countryside, tractors tilled the earth; to the west of town, a chemical plant poured fumes into the air and pumped waste deep underground. At night its lights glowed like an alien insect of glinting metal and light. Years before it had fouled the water, until everyone in town had to pump in their water from miles away.
David Westron sat on his bed in the hotel room, his home away from home, staring out the window to the emptied parking lot just outside. The morning was still cool, but within a few hours waves of heat would rise off the asphalt, and the air would shimmer and bake the grass at the edges of the lot. Hunter Thomas sat in a chair nearby, writing something in his journal. The silence stretched between them. Both were spent, both had little to say after three weeks of knocking on doors, finding no one home, or worse, condescending smiles and nods that ended in sage predictions of "times being tough." Those left in the town who had not fallen to the plague were convinced that they were immune, that they would beat it, even though six in ten in the town had already succumbed. Or worse, a farmer or businessman would nod in sad resignation, knowing it was just a matter of time until the disease came knocking on their door, too.
The bed creaked beneath David. The springs were uneven and pushed into his back and sides during the night, and the blankets were rough and had a strong chemical smell. He had grown used to it over the last couple years on the road, sleeping in hard beds in strange towns across central Illinois.
At first it had been new and exciting, a sense of adventure as he and Hunter moved from town to town, arriving on a Monday morning, hanging four shirts and three pairs of pants each on hangers, tucking away pajamas and books and toothbrushes and shaving kits into dresser drawers and bathroom corners, and then driving out into the country, or into whatever town they were staying in, knocking on doors, selling their wares. By Thursday they would reverse the process, pulling out the clothes from dressers, the shaving kits, the dirty pants where mud and paw prints and rain had splattered them, and where sweat and rain and coffee had stained the shirts, stuffing them into suitcases that they would place back in the trunks of their cars, to go back to their other life, sometimes having met success, other times coming home empty handed.
It was now nearly two years since the beginning. The July heat had shimmered off the golden fields baking in the sun, the rain and thunder had rolled across the plains more times than they could count, drenching them as they slogged across a muddy field to another farmhouse, or waited for the rain to pass on a quiet country road. The snow had come, and the ice and the freezing cold, and the dark nights, and the wandering aimlessly beside icy rivers to gas stations where they could warm themselves with a cup of coffee.
But then they had their dreams to keep them warm. Someday this would all be worth it. The houses with the large fields and long driveways would be theirs. They would escape the dark nights and cold days of winter by taking trips to Cancun, the Caribbean, or to their vacation homes in Europe. One more sale, and then another, it was just the beginning of building their dreams and opening a life they had never known and leaving behind the bondage and fear they had known.
There were the beautiful moments as well: the clean smell of the world after a spring rain, the beauty of a giant buck standing in the middle of the woods, challenging anyone it saw before it stamped and blew and sprang nimbly off the road into the deep forest, the surprising moments of hospitality and kindness and friendship in the homes of strangers.
Hunter closed his journal, and turned toward David, casting a brief smile before it fell away into grim melancholy. "Well, anything to talk about?"
"No," David said, "guess not."
Hunter leaned forward and rose from his chair, grabbing a clipboard, business kit, and notes. "Well, that's it then," he said. "Good hunting."
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Fear is healthy. It's wired into us, and sends adrenaline pumping through our bodies, which then helps us to either "fight or flight", or even posture (act strong) or submit (show helplessness). It warns us of dangerous situations, of risk, that we might get hurt or lose something. It shows up in different places: a fight, a job interview, asking someone out on a date, learning new things, pursuing goals and dreams.
Strength isn't the absence of fear. Strength is recognizing the fear, looking at it, but then not giving into it. If I fight this person I could feel pain, I could break bones, get a concussion, get my teeth knocked out. If I ask this girl out and she says no, I might feel stupid, my feelings could be hurt, I might feel rejected. If I go in on this business deal I might lose my retirement, lose the money I invested, might let down the family members who are depending on me. If I try out for the team or for my dream and don't make it, then what? Am I still me? How do I redefine my identity?
When we take risks, all of these things are possibilities. But often there are other possibilities as well. If I fight, I might win, or, I might get hurt but that's a small price to pay to avoid watching someone else I love get hurt. If I ask this girl out, she might turn me down, or she might say yes, and we may have a great relationship ahead. If I risk on this business deal, I might go bankrupt, or I might make millions, or at least learn something that will improve our life situation. If I pursue this dream, I might actually make it.
We fear failure. Sometimes we fear success. If I win this fight, does that make me a fighter? A bully? Can I be strong without it overtaking me? Will I know how and when to use this strength? If I date this girl and we really like each other, we might get married, have a family. Am I ready for that commitment? How will it change me? If I make millions, will I still be the same me? There are so many rich people out there who are jerks; I don't want to be one of THEM. If I fulfill my dream, will there be any other dreams out there to achieve?
We either let our fears cripple us, hold us back, or recognize what they tell us about ourselves, where we come from, how we've come to see ourselves and the world around us. When I was younger, I had teachers who said "It's never okay to fight. Fighting never solves anything." Yet on the playground it was a different story. Some things are worth fighting for, it's knowing the difference. We should fight poverty, oppression, abuse, slavery. When we don't fight these things, it is not an act of strength, but of weakness. Our fears have overtaken us, and we assume someone else will take responsibility, meaning we're too afraid to step up ourselves.
At home, my parents would get in arguments and Mom would say, "Never treat a woman like that." Sometimes the fear is, "Fighting in a relationship is always bad." And so we shy away from confrontation. Yet sometimes in the relationship, confrontation is the thing that is healthiest and most needed. When done well, it says "I care enough about you and this relationship to speak truth, even if it is hard, or even painful." It says, "I'm passionate about you, about us, and I'm willing to do the work to fix things rather than hope they'll get better or go away." There are healthy and unhealthy ways to confront, and I'm not advocating abuse, but sometimes we fear confrontation so much that we don't step up to fight for the relationship.
I grew up in the church. In addition to the flannel board Jesus with perfect hair, manicured nails, and clean clothes, my Sunday school teachers would often say, "Good Christians are nice. Turn the other cheek." The men and women would shake hands, talk about weather, how glad they were to be there, and stumble and stammer over the words to say. Everything was fine. People were blessed. There were no problems here, thank you. You don't talk about those things in church. Yet I've looked into the eyes of the men, young men and old men, and they've lost something real. They've become emasculated, they lack passion, lack honesty. I've looked at the women beside them, bitter, waiting, looking for some sign of life and shouldering responsibilities that they resent.
And then someone would come in, they couldn't take it anymore, and tears would burst open the gates of their façade that everything was put together, that everything was all right. In fact, everything wasn't. In a moment of "weakness" they would admit that their lives were broken, falling apart, that they needed God, they needed community, they needed something more than they were getting.
There would be different reactions. Some people would come alongside and simply love on the person who was hurting. They would listen without judging, yet challenge them if they needed it. Others would cluck like hens, patting the hurting person on the back, but saying that "They shouldn't feel that way," or "everything happens for a reason," or even "God has a plan." While some of those things may have been true, seeing someone else's pain and honesty was too much. They had to keep it at a distance by spouting cheap platitudes. Then there was a third group who would come alongside, offering comfort to the person who was hurting, but then later say to each other, "I knew Joe had issues. See, he's not so strong after all. It's a good thing I'm not like that."
There would also be the response of the person who had "broken down." Sometimes they would come back, a week later, somewhat embarrassed over their "emotional outburst," the mask once again firmly in place. I'm good, thanks. How are you? Yes, I think it's going to be another warm day. How about that?
For others, it was the beginning of a deeper truth, that there's a paradox in "strength through weakness." Sometimes the scariest, riskiest, and strongest thing one can do is admit they don't have it all together, that they're broken, that they need God, need community, need to be saved and the efforts they've poured in by trying to do it themselves just don't cut it. They recognized they had fears, and yet they faced them, trusting not their own strength, but in a much deeper strength, the irony of the cross.
Fear is inevitable; it warns us of danger. It confronts us in our ethics, our relationships, our life dreams, and our honesty with God. Jesus agonized in the garden, knowing the ordeal that was ahead, begging that it be taken away if there was any other possibility. Did he feel afraid? Yes. Maybe he could have walked away, the option was available, he could have hidden, yet he submitted in strength to the cross. He wasn't caught, wasn't discovered, wasn't found out, crippled by fear, or sent kicking and screaming. He went knowing the cost, the pain, the risk, and went in strength.
Sunday, 4:15. December 7th.
I stepped into the ring. A Hispanic man about my height stood a foot away. He was younger, faster, fifty pounds lighter, but I had seen him minutes before; he looked frightened. I didn't look into his eyes now, but at a point lower, the blue field marking his chest protector. I had visualized this moment during the prior two days, had fought down the building fear and sometimes panic, but now that the moment was here, I only felt the beating of my heart, the filling and emptying of my lungs. My head and body were encased in hard foam padding, my arms and legs covered as well. I wondered if this was how the knights felt inside all their armor. I was standing barefoot in front of a crowd of spectators who were now nothing more than noise in the back of my mind, except for the voice of my coach.
"Stay loose," he said, knowing my tendency to stiffen up when I sparred. A woman (the referee) held her hand between me and the man I was standing across from, creating a natural barrier between us. "Shijak!" she yelled, lifting her hand in the air and taking a quick step back; it had begun. The man I was fighting was fast. He kicked me twice in the chest with a combination roundhouse kick within the first few seconds. I felt the blow and hadn't been hit that hard in a long time. I tried to respond immediately with a kick of my own, but he had danced away, staying out of reach. I punched, made contact, kicked at the air, and sometimes landed a kick. Most of the time I was just a little behind, a little too slow.
The first minute ended and we went to our chairs. My coach handed me some water and told me to sit down. "You're doing well for your first tournament," he said. "He's up on you in points, but you're doing well. Now here's what I want you to do. When he comes at you with a kick I want you to raise your knee and block him. Take out his leg, take away his tool. Then, follow it with a punch and kick of your own." I nodded, trying hard to catch my breath. "You want me to block, punch, then kick?"
I nodded again, put my mouth guard back between my teeth and ran out to the floor. Round two would soon begin.
This time when my opponent threw a kick, I lifted my knee. Bone collided on bone, and I saw my opponent step back and wince. I charged, trying a kick of my own, but he danced out of reach. He kicked again, and again collided, and then again, and this time I saw him clearly limping. "Close the gap!" someone shouted, and "lead with a block" my coach yelled. I started a flurry, running forward, trying to kick his stomach, his chest, but the time was up. I had hesitated too long.
I lost the match on points, but knew I had won something. I hadn't given up; I had faced my fear. Later my coach said, "You got inside his head. You stayed with it, you did what I told you to do. If this had been a street fight, you would have won. If the match had gone one minute longer, you would have had him."
I'd heard the talkers. "Yeah, if I was in that situation, I would . . ." They talk about the things they would do, the way they would humiliate their opponent, dominate, and come out without a scratch. I'd never felt that way. According to David Grossman in On Killing, In the Civil War to WWII, 85% of the soldiers with weapons either didn't fire their weapons at all or misfired them, often shooting harmlessly over the heads of their opponents, assuring that they would not kill another human being. There's something deeply ingrained in us that resists harming another human being, even if our own lives are at stake. We feel less hesitation when it comes to harming or killing an animal, but for most of us we draw the line when it comes to another human being. This resistance is a good thing, most of the time.
I didn't know what I would do. I'd been in fights before, and they weren't the glamorous things that others made them out to be, at least not for me. My last fight was in high school, between me and a guy I rode the bus with, over some girl that we both liked. Anyway, we fought, and it was like two terrified animals fighting to stay alive. We threw a few punches and kicks, but it was over shortly after it started, both of us agreeing to a truce. The next day the other guy said he'd won, so I challenged him to a rematch, this time with others watching. We punched, and kicked, stepped back to let cars go by, and then punched and kicked some more, and danced around the street. The people who had come to watch both thought we'd exchanged some shots, and couldn't tell who had won. I went home and put a washcloth on my bleeding lip while my mom was giving piano lessons downstairs, sneaking by so she wouldn't see the blood, and the next day the other guy told me he was sore where I had kicked him. That was my last fight.
The day before the match I felt fear begin to rise up inside me. What would really happen? Would I be able to keep my head, would I panic, would I back off, or would I fight back? I visualized what it would look like to be in the ring. I'd trained, lost weight, become better conditioned, and felt ready to fight, win or lose. I wanted to test myself, to see if I had strength. What if I was in a real fight, on a street, or saw someone being beaten or raped? Would I continue walking, not wanting to get hurt or killed, or would I risk getting involved, jumping in and pushing past my own need for self-preservation for someone else? If someone broke into my home and attacked my wife, my kids, what would I do? Would I have courage? Would I have strength? Would I be able to overcome my fear and do what I needed to do? These were the big questions for me.
I learned something that day. I learned about strength.
I might do another tournament soon, but more than that, I'm not as afraid. I'm not afraid at work, I'm not afraid in relationships, I'm not afraid of making hard choices or possibly getting hurt. There's a heart beating inside my chest. I feel more alive.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Living with half a heart, part of a soul,
While another carries around a piece of you.
Meanwhile walking in shadows, the world moves . . . on. Leaves fall, seasons change. The winter winds breeze their icy
breath, whispering death.
And you have to keep moving, walking dead, waiting for the intake of breath and the coming spring, or hibernate in a cocoon of spent hope.
Beauty in pain. Growth in sadness. Many are afraid of it, shy away from it, run from it.
Take a pill, hide it, mask it, shoot it up, make it go away, they say.
Or feel it, swim in it, turn the memories over like a precious stone, grow from it, appreciate it, and become wise.
Punching hands, kicking feet, hammering down blows, just to feel . . . something.
Sweat, blood, muscles ache, jaws hurt, and sweep the wound clean.
Tears rain down, screams scrape heaven with their cries.
And then silence.
No answers, but peaceful nights. Sleep. Hope. Learning to value, to see. Abandonment of pride, and past pain.
Fighting to hold it close, letting it go, dreaming of days gone by and not yet come. Will this wrestling match ever end?
Laughing again. Silent peace. Trust. Healing.