“That was shit. Do it again.”

I wrote my first novel around 1996.

It sucked.

Of course, I didn’t know how badly it sucked. But I was fortunate enough to find a literary agent who was opening her own shop and agreed to take a look at my manuscript. I sent it off, convinced that it was utterly amazing, and anxiously awaited her response.

When it came, I was surprised to find that she had sent the manuscript back instead of just sending me a letter proclaiming my thriller was the best thing she’d read in ages and was anxious to sell it for millions.

I took my manuscript out of its box and looked at it. Each and every single page bled red ink. She had gone through the entire manuscript – the entire fucking thing – and torn it apart. Comments were scrawled over every page. And they were harsh. “Who says something this stupid?” in reference to a line of dialogue. “I don’t believe his motivations.” “This is laughably absurd.” “Are you kidding me with this comment?” “The pacing sucks here.” And on it went. Each and every page of my thriller was ripped apart, torn asunder, and scorched with critique. I was momentarily devastated. I’d worked hard on that thriller. For the last several years I’d carefully pecked away at it, crafting what I thought was a contemporary storyline with compelling characters, taut pacing, and devilish dialogue.

But it wasn’t. It was an amateurish outing by a new wanna-be author and it was full of shortcomings and faults and every sort of cliche that springs forth when someone talks about wanting to be a writer. Tons of passive voice, tons of speech tags, tons of adverbs, tons of…well, garbage.

I could have sat and cried about it; I could have wallowed in the assault to my ego; I could have very easily given up and decided that being a writer wasn’t for me. I could have done all of those things because that’s exactly what many people do when they’re faced with criticism. They take it personally.

But there was nothing about the agent’s critique of my manuscript that was personal. She’d simply read it with the eye of a seasoned professional who had seen all of the problems many times before and because she was actually a pretty awesome person, she’d done me the great service of pointing out exactly how bad my work was.

I was fortunate that I’d been subjecting myself to harsh criticism for years at that point. My mentor back in the late 80s, a grizzled old Korean War veteran of special operations, had taught me any number of things and his usual response whenever I tried to do them was along the lines of “That was shit. Do it again.” And I would. Over and over again until I showed proficiency that was up to his standard. In the military, it was never enough to do the bare minimum; they expected more. Always more. What was good enough yesterday wasn’t good enough today. “Do better.” And in martial arts, I was repeatedly critiqued because my teacher was testing my ego and seeing where I had openings in my armor – not just physically, but mentally and spiritually – that an opponent could use against me. One of my key faults back then was not keeping my guard up enough, so after every class I attended (usually 4-5 times each week) I was put into a corner, given a motorcycle helmet to wear and then forced to stay there in a defensive posture while my seniors took turns wailing punches at my head until I learned how to keep my guard up and stay cool under pressure. It was not a quick process and I went through it for the better part of a year (may have been a little less than that, I can’t actually remember lol).

Because harsh criticism was nothing new to me, I was able to process what the literary agent had done for me. And instead of viewing it as an attack, I saw it for what it was: an opportunity to grow and get better at this thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Exactly the same as the other things I’d been learning: whether it was shaving seconds off a forced march time, or learning how to surveil someone, or execute ganseki nage (A technique: “throwing a big rock” – Ninjutsu), there was always room for improvement, always room to learn new things, and as a result: grow and get better at whatever activity it was.

And so, I set about rewriting that novel that had been so blown apart with detailed critiques. And in the process of doing so, I came across a very faint line that that same agent had written on the very back page in a weird place. I wouldn’t have ever seen it if I’d given up and stopped writing, or dismissed her advice as garbage because I was too full of myself. The note was simple: “If you made it this far, send it back to me.”

I remember chuckling to myself when I found that note. She’d seen enough wanna-be writers in her time to know that the chances that I would toss the manuscript and her advice in the trash were higher than the chances that I’d take her advice to heart, rewrite and improve the manuscript and finally see her note. But I was stubborn enough to take her advice and apply it because I really wanted to be a writer; just like I really wanted every other activity that was tough to achieve.

I won’t sit here and tell you that critique doesn’t hurt. Of course it does. Your ego is in place to protect you in a lot of ways; but it’s also a double-edged sword. That same ego that seeks to protect, can inhibit your growth and cause you to miss out on opportunities because you’re so busy being defensive and insisting there’s nothing wrong or that mistakes weren’t made or that you know better than everyone else. You’ve decided to take it personally when it’s not.

Not everyone responds to harsh criticism well; but over the years I’ve found that I enjoy working with people who have been through some variation of harsh criticism and know how to deal with it without getting their ego bent out of shape. They take pride in their work and see critiques and criticism as a way to improve and get better so they can enjoy that sense of pride that comes from putting forth your very best. And more often than not these days, I find myself gravitating to people who understand the notion that good enough never is. It’s not good enough; and if you say that then it’s probably not good at all: it’s shit.

This runs counter to a lot of what society tells us; that no one cares, that you don’t have to bleed for your craft, that no one else is working this hard so you should just say “fine” and be done with it.

That’s exactly why we have so many unchecked egos running around these days; that’s why there’s so much garbage out there; that’s why our personal relationships with people suffer as much as they do – because the majority of people will veer toward mediocrity instead of excellence. Mediocrity is easier. Excellence is hard. Effort is hard after a long day at work when all you want to do is crash on the couch and drink yourself silly.

Excellence and the sense of pride that comes with it is its own best reward; when you know that you’ve given every full measure of yourself and spent every last bit in pursuit of achievement there is a true sense of contentment.

Critiques are a challenge to be sure. But without challenge, there is no growth.

And without growth, there is no life.

Who Dares Lives.

PS: This story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, depending which way you choose to look at it. I did indeed send that manuscript back to that agent; but at that point she’d made the decision to only focus on nonfiction projects. She wrote me a very nice letter back telling me how happy she was that I’d taken her advice to heart and that the manuscript was much better. “It still needs work,” she concluded. “But the fact that you were willing to put in this much effort tells me that you will eventually succeed – even without me representing you.” And fifty novels later, she was right.

Get Comfortable Being Different: A New Year’s Wish for 2020

Well, it’s that time again. Time to put another year to rest and look forward to the coming twelve months with hope and ambition. I know a lot of people for whom 2019 was a bad year and they’re anxious to deep-six it and move on. For me, 2019 was about the same as 2018 and the year before that…an equal mix of good and bad. I had plenty of challenges to face; I had enemies emerge who made up outrageous lies about me and tried to hurt me. (Spoiler alert: They failed in spectacular fashion, lol.) I had any number of high points as well. I turned 50 this year; the first male Merz to do so in generations. I’m pretty happy about that.

Inevitably, my social media feed is clogged with bold proclamations about the coming year and how folks are going to change in one way or another to accomplish this goal or that goal. And I always root for them – I want the people I know and care for to always be happy. It’s an unrealistic hope; life is never always up or always down, but being an optimist, I still want the best for the people I love.

However, if I could make one suggestion to everyone who is planning to make big moves in 2020, it would be this: before you start enacting that bold plan, before you start tomorrow by taking a huge bite out of the next dream; before you dive in because it’s “the thing to do,” do one thing first:

Get comfortable being different.

Because right now, as you plan your 2020, you’re doing what 90% of the rest of humanity is doing. All of you are making plans, setting goals, making resolutions. You’re part of the “we’re all in this together” mindset. And it’s a fun place to be, frankly. You’re surrounded (either literally or virtually) by swarms of people who want to change, do more, be more, etc. It’s almost like a community. The excitement is ramping up as the clock moves toward 2020. “We’re gonna do this!”

But here’s the simple truth: 95% of that 90% will not realize their dreams and goals for 2020.

Don’t get me wrong, for the first few days of the new year, you’ll have plenty of company on your quest for a better 2020. Your social media feed will be filled with posts about how things have changed. But as the month wears on, those posts will become less frequent. For one reason or another, the other members of your “new year community” will falter, they’ll fall by the wayside, and they’ll stop. Some of those reasons might be entirely in their control. Perhaps they simply don’t have the willpower necessary, or the endurance, to see their goals to fruition. Still others will stop because of circumstances outside of their control. Through no fault of theirs, things will happen and upset the schedule they had planned to follow. It happens. All of this happens.

But when it does, if you are one of the few who keeps going, you will now be different from everyone else who stopped.

And instead of being part of that “community,” you are now in the company of very few.

Perhaps you’re even alone.

Humans are naturally drawn to a hive mindset; we like being surrounded by people like us, who reinforce what we say, what we think, what we do. It’s comfortable; it’s easy. We know the territory; it feels like an old friend. And so we tend to stay there.

When you step outside of that, when you walk a path that few others walk, when you do things few others dare, then you are different. And unless you are comfortable with being so, you will experience a lot of heartache.

Some people will resent you for doing what they cannot; some people will hate you for having the ability to reach your goals; some people will be jealous of what they perceive to be an easier life than the one they have; and some will wish for your failure with all of their energy and intent.

Because you are different.

This has nothing to do with obvious factors like your sexuality, your gender, gender identity, race, or anything that is more physically apparent (side note: this is exactly why there is more that binds us in commonality than most people realize; the real differences between people aren’t any of the above – they are differences of mindset and attitude.)

It has everything to do with what you are prepared to do to accomplish your dreams and goals and ambitions – what you are willing to do to create the best possible truth in your own life.

Can you endure being different? Can you tolerate the passive-aggressive snipes that people make without necessarily even realizing they’re doing it? (Although there will definitely be malicious souls as well) Can you stand keeping your family and friends at arm’s length because their constant negativity affects you? Can you stand being an outcast? Can you put up with someone else being celebrated while you toil away in obscurity toward your goal? Can you quiet the voices inside you that question your decision to walk the path you’re on? Can you do all of this and more in the quest for what you really want?

If you cannot, then the likelihood is that you will fail in your resolutions. And that then sets up a vicious circle of disappointment that leads to resentment that leads to eventual hope that the future will be better. But nothing will ever change unless you have the ability to be different – and stay different.

This isn’t a one-off; you aren’t different until you accomplish a goal and then go back to being like everyone else. You stay different because you accomplish that goal and then realize others. Each goal you reach leads to others; the path is never-ending. And the challenges will always be there, no matter how many times you defeat them.

Being different isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. But for those who want to make a change, then the time to understand the consequences of that is now, rather than later.

Go forward understanding what you are embarking upon; things don’t ever change unless you are willing to take bold steps, to dare where others will not; and to endure with every atom of your being until you reach what you aspire to reach.

And then?

Then you keep going, keep climbing, keep striving…because you are different.

And that is most definitely a good thing.

Happy New Year everyone!

The Myth of Motivation

One of the things that motivational speakers, self-help gurus, and ordinary well-meaning individuals always seem to espouse is this notion that motivation springs from a place of positivity.

But the simple truth is, motivation can come from anywhere. Good, bad, dark, light, a well-spring of happiness or a font of misery. Motivation can be all unicorns and rainbows or it can be the deepest, darkest part of your soul filled with rage and bitterness.

And problems arise when people hear only about it coming from the positive and thereby think that if they aren’t always happy or upbeat, there must be something wrong with them. That is not necessarily true. Although extended periods of darkness and depression can definitely be a sign that you may want to look into talking to someone, darkness – like light – can also be useful.

Imagine bumping into an old high school friend and they happen to look fit, trim, and happy. Maybe you’ve been slacking on the workout front so seeing them fills you with jealousy or resentment. Instead of tamping that down and chastising yourself for being “bad,” use it to motivate you to get back to your fitness regimen. Take the so-called “bad” and use it to create something “good.”

Frankly, as we’ve discussed before, negative energy is always easier to generate than positive. All biological systems left to their own devices without some form of discipline will naturally devolve into chaos. It’s always easier to go negative than positive, so if generating positive energy is too hard, i.e., “Brenda looks great! Good for her. I want to look like that, too, so I’ll get back to working out.” then simply use negative energy to drive you forward, i.e., “Ugh, That bitch looks good. I hate her for looking so good so I’m gonna show her. I’ll look even better once I start getting back to the gym.”

Using the negative to generate something positive is an intriguing idea that you can use in any area of your life.

The key to motivation is knowing how to handle it and direct it once you have it in-hand. Being truthful about where your motivation is coming from is also key. If you lie to yourself about its source, then that simply sets you up for failure. There will be plenty of times throughout the course of your life when anger motivates you to do something; resentment, jealousy, bitterness – all of these are inherent and natural aspects of our mood and spirit. True power comes from being honest with yourself and recognizing these aspects just as readily as you recognize all the positive: happiness, pride, joy, ecstasy, satisfaction, etc.

Too many self-help gurus like to only focus on the positive and for good reason: a lot of them have never been honest about admitting that humans are made up of every emotion on the entire spectrum, just not the happy go-lucky side. Denying one side in favor of the other is a recipe for disaster, because when those darker emotions hit, the person who has spent too much time denying them will be ill-prepared to deal with their presence and influence. Whereas someone who acknowledges the complexities of their entire psyche in an honest, forthright fashion will always have a better idea of how to deal with any and all aspects of their being.

Even when it seems like there is nothing within you to help motivate, there is always something. The key is simply acknowledging that some of the parts of yourself that society tells you not to employ, are, in fact, things you can use to help.