Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oprah, Cakes, and Starfish

In the last few weeks I've been working off and on, trying to jump-start a book project.  I've brainstormed titles, written outlines, and written literally almost a dozen "chapter ones".

And the more I work on the damn thing, the more I realize that I have absolutely no idea what to say, or who I'm saying it to.

Oh, sure, I know exactly what needs to be communicated.  I know what skills are needed to solve a huge host of problems that I've had, and that other people have.  I know what beliefs are necessary, and which ones get in the way.

What I'm not convinced of -- as yet -- is that I can actually say any of this stuff in a way that will get people to really  believe it, and take action.

At one level of detail, I could write it all very simply, just stating what I know and how it works.  But presented at that level, rather a lot of it would sound like any other self-help book: vague, over-optimistic, and lacking in tangible reasoning behind its recommendations.

And We Can't Have That, Can We?

At another level, I could write a scathing critique and expose' of the self-help industry and why most of what is recommended simply does not work for most people, most of the time.

But that likely wouldn't appeal to anyone besides skeptics...  who probably wouldn't like me pointing out the things that do work!

In a way, what I really want most is to write something that I could have read and benefited from, back when I was young and in pain and thought it was only me who was broken.

But it almost seems as if the body of knowledge I have now acquired is inextricably bound to the journey of learning through which I acquired it.  That the only way to learn it besides repeating that journey, is to accept it on faith.

And taking things on faith, I find myself thinking, is not something I would have done, back then, when I needed these understandings most.

But then a deeper reflection tells me...  

That's probably not true.

Because the real reason, I think, that I hesitate to write, is that I also want the book to reflect well on me.

So it should do well in the market.  Be easy to get PR for.  Easy to condense to media soundbites when I'm interviewed.

And of course it should be unique and distinctive, while also being nothing less than the purest distillation of my knowledge and skills.  No simplification of the facts just to make it more "accessible".  And it must be immediately obvious from the book's positioning why it is absolutely nothing like any other self-help book ever written, so that even the most cynical of people won't hesitate to snatch up a copy in a bookstore feeding frenzy.

(Hm.  Inner conflicts, much?)

This, of course, is the exact same pattern that we all fall into.  We want to eat our cake, but still have it.  Indecision is suffering, and that is all that suffering is.

Suffering is a clash between mental control systems, the hot and cold flashes we would feel in a room with two thermostats set to different temperatures!  It's impossible to satisfy both settings at the same time, and so we suffer.

But this suffering doesn't come about because we desire things.  It comes about because...

We Won't Give Any Of Them Up!

See, people think that "non-attachment" means you don't want anything, or that you don't pursue what you want.  But they're wrong.  Attachment is not about whether you get what you want, it's about not losing what you think you have.

In my case, I fear that writing a simplified form of my learnings will somehow corrupt or cheapen them.  That not sufficiently communicating their uniqueness, or using too much emotion and not enough logic will make me "just like everyone else".  That I will, in some sense, "lose my soul".

And yet, when it really comes right down to it, I have already very nearly stated the heart and soul of my philosophy here in this post.  Indecision is suffering, and the fear of losing is the one thing that stands between feeling like a loser, and being naturally successful.  (As opposed to the pump-yourself-up, willpower-based variety of success that's never worked for me.)

Now sometimes, the way we stop being afraid of losing is by "hitting bottom" and feeling we have nothing else to lose.  And sometimes, we realize that what we're afraid of losing is...

Something we never had in the first place!

But other times, the path is not so desperate or dramatic.  Sometimes, we just systematically work to eradicate our fears.  Not by willpower or affirmation, but by understanding the nature of the mind.

And above all else, by knowing what to look for.  If you don't know that fears of loss and failure are perhaps the only difference between succeeding and failing (due to the differences in brain mode), then you won't spend the time needed to find them...  or eliminate them.

And if you don't know why it makes a difference, you won't be motivated to try.  You will think it's just the same old same old, that you've heard before...  and didn't do anything about.

In other words, it'll just be another "neat idea" to you.

Now I suppose I feel that in my live workshops and one-on-one sessions I have at least some small chance of figuratively grabbing my listener by the throat and making them see.  And after this last weekend's workshop, I got notes from a few of the participants saying that the exercise I put them through sparked a breakthrough for them, and telling me about the cool results they've achieved since then.

But still...

I worry about the ones who didn't send me notes!

Because I want everyone to have a breakthrough.  I want to be the Oprah of breakthroughs: "You get a breakthrough!  And you get a breakthrough!  And you, and you, and you..."

Now on an intellectual level, I realize this is purest ego on my part.  I'm sure that nobody, not even Jesus and the Buddha got 100% breakthroughs from every talk they gave!

And most people think ego is about self-aggrandizement, but in my case at least, it usually masquerades as an excess of altruism.  Among writers and speakers creating their first product, it usually manifests as a desire to make sure the product is of sufficiently "high quality" -- which is usually code for "the packaging reflects well on me", rather than "actually helps people".

(The same thing also applies to most of us computer programmers, by the way.  We don't like to release a program that hasn't been polished enough to stand up to the scrutiny of our peers... even if people are already willing to pay good money for it.  But I digress.)

And in truth, I must admit I do not have a perfect philosophy or method.  It must be applied in order to work, and it must be applied to each new area of life I come into contact with.  And although I will certainly be able to use my methods to banish the fears I just exposed by writing this, it will not foreclose the possibility that as I tackle bigger goals...

I'll find new fears.

My consolation, however, is that each time I get stuck, I can simply turn back to the basics of my method: examine what I want, find the conflicts, identify the fears of losing...  and eliminate them.

And as for the people who don't get a breakthrough from just one reading or talk, I suppose they will just have to wait for the next one.  Because I know that when I take away the belief that I have "failed" by not being the perfect guru, I will feel...  and not just think...  the message of the starfish story.

You know, that story about an adult who sees a boy throwing starfish back in the water after a storm, trying to save them from drying out and dying on the shore?   The adult says, "there are thousands of starfish washed up here, but only one of you -- so what makes you think you can make a difference?"

And the boy smiles as he throws one back in the water.  "It sure makes a difference to that one."

And who knows, maybe the tears welling up in my eyes right now, threatening to pour down my cheeks at any moment, could be some indication that I'm already beginning...

To feel that way, too.