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Who are you? Writing virtues into the writing life

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‘Virtue’ is a word we don’t hear a great deal. There’s an anachronistic ring to it. It can also sound smug. A problem with over-focussing on self-improvement is that it can make us seem remote, self-satisfied and self-centred. An irony if we’re setting out to be kinder or more patient. We become rather like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

In Cultivating Virtue, philosopher Christine Swanton suggests that instead of cultivating ourselves, we concentrate on doing virtuous actions. The first step toward virtue is to act as if you have that quality. We then hope that through feedback and reflection, growth follows without self-obsessing. Or as Aristotle puts it:

(Wo)men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way… you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.

Who we are is fluid. We don’t come written in stone. Humans are adaptable. The environment we live in makes a huge difference, as do the choices we make. There are things we have little or no influence over in life, but we have the capacity to change, to become the person we want to be.

One of the joys of being a storyteller is that it’s not only about fiction. I can also write myself. But it has to go further than narrativising — my journal is a good place to plan and reflect, but it also has to translate into action. …

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With this in mind, at New Year I invested in a tiny book. And I set about a long journalling exercise around what 13 virtues or qualities I should action this year. Why thirteen?

Because I’d read an article about Benjamin Franklin who chose 13 virtues and focussed on one each week. Choosing 13 meant that each quality would get four weeks of attention over the year. That seemed feasible. And I like the idea of revisiting each quality whilst not obsessing about one or two things constantly.

A ‘year’ of course can start at any point, so if it appeals, you can begin at any time.

Thirteen qualities for the year

These are the 13 virtues or qualities that emerged for me over several journalling sessions:

I hope you’ll read on on Medium and clap the article there if you enjoy it …

 

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8 reasons why you should never compromise

1. Compromise is another word for mediocrity

Reaching agreements with other people is a valuable skill. To be able to negotiate and find common ground is demanding and rewarding. To reach solutions in which all parties feel satisfied, listened to and taken seriously is a major achievement.

But that’s not what compromise is. Compromise is about reaching a settlement, whether or not it feels authentic. Compromise is all too often about accepting an outcome that has lower standards than we want to countenance.

As Tim Fargo says:

Compromise is a sign you’ll pass on the road to mediocrity.

When I began Cinnamon Press I wanted to develop writers who demanded a high level of attention and wakefulness from their readers. I wanted to publish books that challenged readers to stay awake and live boldly. I wanted to champion writers who were diverse, distinctive and daring. I wanted to publish those who write differently, who produce small wonders in each book.

Many of the books from our first twelve years have achieved these goals. But not all of them.

Many of our publications are beautifully-designed, high quality, radically distinctive books. But whilst keeping the press going some compromises occurred.

I’m done with that. If a book isn’t consistent with our definition of excellence, then it’s not for us. This involves some hard decisions and some difficult conversations, but either the work we do is mediocre or great. It’s a choice. Compromise is a way of staying in the shallows when you should be heading for the depths.

2. Compromise isn’t about listening and learning from others, it’s about giving in

This is not to say that we should become intransigent. Other people may have visions and perspectives we haven’t considered. Learning from others is vital.

Those with super-inflated egos or closed minds might claim they don’t compromise. But what they are actually doing is refusing to learn and grow.

This isn’t what I’m advocating.

Being open to new ideas and being able to take advice is a mark of humility and flexibility. But doing whatever anyone else wants of you or saying yes to everything that comes along is simply weak and ill-considered.

By all means, listen and weigh the options, but know why you say yes and no and how each decision reflects your ideals, goals and values.

Don’t agree to take on work or go down a route someone else suggests because it seems like the easiest thing to do at that time. That way resentment lies.

C.S. Lewis captures it with ironic precision in The Screwtape Letters:

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…

What might seem like an easy life for the short term is likely to become the albatross around your neck. And it’s much harder to extricate yourself from a situation that doesn’t fit your values than it is to refuse it in the first place.

3. Compromise undermines our values

When you make compromises or say yes to projects against your better judgement your values suffer. Imagining you are doing it to please someone or out of kindness or for a quieter life doesn’t change this.

If you value excellence in writing but publish a book that isn’t up to your standards, then it’s your standards that suffer. If you become involved in a project that has inferior values to the ones you live by, then you are supporting those inferior values. We are what we do. As Gandhi notes:

our beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.

We will often say yes to things we know are not in our value-set rather than offend or disappoint someone. The regret and resentment that follows is often much more difficult than the initial difficult conversation. And telling someone we can’t follow through on a promise is much harder than never making the promise.

How much better to know your values and live by them. As Aesop cautions:

Don’t let your special character and values, the secret that you know and no one else does, the truth — don’t let that get swallowed up by the great chewing complacency.

4. Compromise eats away at your self-respect, your passion and your soul

Compromises, no matter how small we tell ourselves they are, change our souls.

Consistent people with clear values can listen to others and make adjustments as they learn, but they don’t ‘give in’, ‘go with the flow’ or choose ‘anything for an easy life’.

If you are passionate about something and give up because it’s difficult, you lose something of yourself. If you care for something but walk away when supporting it is demanding, your self-respect is likely to plummet.

Listening to others can be instructive.

Giving up on our dreams and passions is soul-destroying. When we go small on our goals and values, we shrivel inside.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi again:

…there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.

When you live by values your integrity shines through and you stand out as someone who is trust-worthy. Compromise makes you inconsistent

5. Compromise makes you inconsistent

If we don’t live by values; if we compromise to please others, we’re likely to be inconsistent. Trying to be people-pleasers is a difficult and circuitous path. It makes us blow with the wind rather than being people of integrity.

When I’m choosing books for the Cinnamon Press list using criterion about excellence, distinctive voice and a contribution to independent literature, I know that not only will the books excel, but people will understand what we are doing.

Whatever your area if interest, you need a clear set of values to operate from so that people can understand and trust where you are coming from.

As Tony Robbins has said:

It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.

6. Compromise is exhausting and depletes your health and energy

The knock-on is that not only do we feel smaller and less worthy, but that our motivation, energy and even physical well-being suffer.

In Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending, protagonist sums up how compromise saps us of moral and emotional strength:

In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian’s terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse — a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred — about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded — and how pitiful that was.

7. Compromise involves putting money before abundance

So often the reason for compromise is financial. We all have commitments and bills to pay, but when we chase money first we tend to put our big goals on hold. When bills are calling, it’s hard to see any income as ‘the wrong money’, but short term gain can often add up to long term drudgery.

This year at Cinnamon Press we’ve taken on half the number of mentoring students, halving that income stream. The up-side is having students who are on course for great writing. We’ve cut back on the number of books we publish, which seems counter-intuitive, but actually allows us to put more effort into the books that truly excite us.

As Jim Collins says:

Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, as it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.

An abundant life is richer and deeper than immediate monetary gratification. Quantity and abundance are not the same thing. An abundant life is one that is full of choice, knowledge, relationships, experiences…

Money can be a great resource, but it’s not an end in itself and living for it will force us into endless compromises.

8. Compromise is not how you want to be remembered

We each leave a legacy. Even if it’s a long way off, there will come a time when it matters who we were and how we acted. Being a people-pleaser can make us feel valued for a short time, but ultimately it’s likely to make us the people who are taken for granted and invisible.

We don’t have to be harsh, intransigent people to avoid being compromisers. Ursula K Le Guin sums this up beautifully in her novel, The Dispossessed:

His gentleness was uncompromising; because he would not compete for dominance, he was indomitable.

We want to be remembered for characteristics that are distinctive, generous and note-worthy, not because we always gave way.

None of this means we have to become inflexible people who imagine we have all the answers. Negotiating and learning are good things to do. Listening is a wonderful skill. But giving in on our values and passion, doing things merely to placate others or for a quiet life will lead to a mediocre life lived in the shallows. Life is too precious for that.

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