Stop Sharpening your F*#king Pencil!

Jeffrey Erkelens
Nov 29, 2019 · 4 min read
Art by Jérôme Glomaud Chadefaux

“How to Lead a more Fulfilling Life”

“How to Overcome Self-doubt”

“Feeling Anxious? Try this Technique”

Remember These 7 Things When It’s Hard To Be True To Yourself”

“Forget every Life-hack you’ve Learned. Try this Instead”

“What the Hell is a Flow State?”


Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, all this advice is well-intentioned, but by the time you’ve poured through it all, you will have self-improved yourself down to a weary nub and tied yourself into a pretzel.

How does one even keep track of it all without becoming paralyzed by confusion or sapped by the same self-doubt one thought should have vanished by having memorized the steps in the article on overcoming self-doubt just a few hours ago?

Am I reading enough books? Is my EQ high enough? Am I being empathic enough? Resilient and confident enough? Inclusive, caring, green and woke enough? Am I a dopamine or a testosterone kind of person and which is which?

Am I even, myself?

Just thinking about all this makes me anxious with the same gut-wrenching angst I was certain I had licked by practicing the technique guaranteed to make it go away. Maybe I should read the article again… and again… and again… in a never-ending rehearsal for a play that never makes its debut.

Just wait a while longer! I’m almost ready. I’m sharpening myself for the grand premiere!

But while and while have no end, and wait a little is a long road.


Why not improvise instead? Why not silence the prescriptive voices of the outsiders and allow yourself the freedom to trust your inner wisdom for a change.

What if you tore-up all the scripts, wrote your own, raised the curtain, entered the stage, and faced a live audience costumed as your imperfect self? Your conflicted, contradictory, confused, bumbling, flawed but ultimately endearing self. In other words, your wonderfully human self!

I assure you the audience is equally screwed up and clueless.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Endless rumination on how to live a good life is often an unconscious stratagem to keep us safely removed from the real stage. We might become theoretical experts, but remain real life amateurs. As writer Jimmy Santiago Baca said: “Life is not a rehearsal for living someday.”

One can only develop empathy through personal agony.

Compassion, by shared suffering with one’s fellow man.

Emotional intelligence through interaction.

Resilience by perseverance.

Confidence by overcoming.

Character, by being in the arena with your face “marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

Flow and mastery through grit.

Participating in the grand tragicomedy of life is how we sharpen our skills. We learn to life-hack by hacking alone through the muck and moil. We whet our swords against the obstacles in our way. We find our path by carving it ourselves.

Wayfarer, there is not path… walking makes the road!— Antonio Machado

Where, I ask, would we be if our ancestors had sat all day waiting to reach peak mental readiness before going out on the hunt or decrying its injustice in group therapy while endlessly pondering about the meaning of life and death?

Self-development is a worthy endeavor, certainly. And yes, the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said. But if all our navel gazing turns us into self-improvement junkies and keeps us from the actual act of living, we will have sewn our own straightjackets and forged our own shackles.

Sharpen your pencil, surely, but know when good enough is good enough. Quit the perfection game and try winging it for a change, unless you want your life to whittle away into a weary and feckless pile of pretzelled shavings.


Don’t forget to join my mailing list.

Jeffrey Erkelens

Written by

Flying fish. Iconoclast. Currently writing ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys: https://www.facebook.com/bookforboys/

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