I’ve recently completed an extraordinary four weeks of research, writing and travel in Spain, ending in Barcelona after two weeks in Toledo, via a few days stay in both Zaragoza and Burgos. The pressure of unfamiliar places, the space to devote time to walking and soaking up the places, and writing, is perspective altering. A whole month away to dive deep into a passion is a privilege and a challenge and I can feel shifts taking place in how I view my use of time and the nature of my future work.
Life, David Henry Thoreau tells us, is precious. We do not want to find ourselves at the end of it having not lived. So how do we know that we are living, that we are sucking out the marrow of life?
For me it has to do with the courage to live as the person I want to become. That has made me think hard about my art and my work and about what I need to let go of in order to measure my progress.
The apophatic way
In theology, the via negativa (negative way) describes divinity by what it is not. This is the tradition of what must be absent for something, in this case ‘God’, to be God. So much of what consumes our lives and out time is inessential. We need a negative way in order to pursue great things.
The speaker Stephen Covey illustrates this with a large clear bucket. Into the bucket go the elements of our lives. One set comprises pebbles, which represent the thousand and one small demands on our time. The other set is big rocks that represent the important things: family, transformational relationships, meaningful work, passions… If we tip in the pebbles and then try to fit in the rocks, we will fail to make room for the things that matter. If we take care of the rocks first, the small things will fit around them.
Greg McKeown goes even further in the book Essentialism, pointing out that many of the small things could disappear without anyone noticing. And in Good to Great, Jim Collins says,
If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.
Taking time away from my normal environment and routines is a powerful reminder that what we don’t do, the things we don’t want to be, are vital.
What do you need to let go of to be the person you want to become?
For me, some of those things are qualities or mindsets that limit me. Things like:
making excuses for not keeping promises to myself
attaching to outcomes rather than to the hope, expectations and process
complaining instead of problem-solving
Other things that I’m acutely aware of needing to let go are those things that so many of us tolerate in life and that, once tolerated, set the tone of our days, weeks, months and more… Life is too short and too precious to tolerate:
I don’t mean day dreaming or rest or play or creative mooching. What wastes time (and our lives) is more often those small pebbles — hours on Facebook, demanding emails, inessential nonsense…
bullying and harassment:
Sometimes aggressive and difficult people can teach us a great deal about ourselves by how we react. I recently had an onslaught of demands and undermining from someone over quite an extended period. It made me reflect on lots of aspects of my internal response and the importance of doing the creative work I’m committed to and letting it speak for itself. And it also made me much more clear about setting boundaries and what none of us should tolerate.
Story is my way of making sense of the world. Narrative matters in every civilisation and era. Not only do I want to make Cinnamon Press more and more a home for excellence and not only do I want to push my own writing further but, even more fundamentally, I have no time for story that lie. I don’t mean stories that are imaginary or fantastical. I mean story that deliberately misleads, that sells hatred and division, that promotes the myths of fascism or greed. Story is too urgent for that.
The katophatic way
Having a concentrated period to be in flow state, writing and immersing myself in unfamiliar places, concentrates the heart. The tradition of katophatic theology deals in what we can positively say. We need to know what and who we don’t want to be; what we need to let go of, but we also need to know what we want to embrace.
What do you need to embrace to be the person you want to become?
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When I was home educating four children, other parents were often aghast at how ‘brave’ this was. They would tell me that if their children weren’t in school and ‘made to study’, they would learn nothing. To me, the idea of children who were not full of questions and hungry to learn every second of the day seemed extraordinary.
Our different views of children and how learning works came from different experiences. What I observed was that by respecting children’s autonomy, their intrinsic motivation stayed in tact. In a supportive environment, children could choose their learning. Knowledge and skills flowed when the learner was in control. Their confidence and competence levels rose as a result.
More recently I’ve been thinking about what it takes to create a life of value through work. And once again I’ve returned to thinking about intrinsic motivation. I’ve been reading Cal Newton’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which led me to researching Self Determination Theory:
Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.
When we having autonomy over aspects of our lives; when we are skillful and connected, then the motivation doesn’t have to applied from outside. This is as true of our work as it is of children learning.
And whether it’s the life of a scientist or a writer, work that motivates us and in which we find value and meaning is a great goal. We all desire this kind of work. We want creativity, control and the possibility of making a difference through what we do. Such work is something to feel passionate about.
So what’s wrong with finding our passion and following those dreams?
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.
Want to become a different story?
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