What’s so Funny about Happiness, Inspiration, and Success Strategies?
If Medium were a high school dance, its fiction writers would be the kids drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. This is by preference of the fiction writers (of which I am one).
We aren’t the kids desperately clinging to hopes of fitting in with the cool tech and productivity crowd. We’re the ones that laugh and throw popcorn at the idea of fitting in altogether.
We like the parking lot. There’s room to breathe out here. The stars in the sky are real ones, not cheesy prom paper cutouts.
It’s been this way for as long as I’ve been writing, which is to say for most of my life. Presumably, it’s been this way since long before that. For some reason, fiction writers tend towards pessimism, sarcasm, and outsider status.
Perhaps all the time spent living in our imaginations makes the real world unpalatable. Or perhaps the unpalatability of the real world drives us into the world of our imaginations. I’m not sure.
One thing I am confident of is that fiction writers also tend to hold literature in abnormally high esteem. It’s more than entertainment for us. It’s art in art’s highest sense. It’s beauty that ascends to capital-T Truth. More real than reality, in a strange sense. To use the written word for crude, slimy, workaday things like marketing or business is sacrilegious and downright damnable.
So it is that my fiction-writing pals frequently sneer at the sometimes-repetitive Medium articles about things like accruing social media followers, building our personal brands (we’re people not brands, damn it), and using gadget X. They scoff at guys like Gary Vaynerchuck and Tony Robbins as being inherently ridiculous, shallow, and fake.
This tendency goes all the way to the top. In 2018, JK Rowling responded to a tweet claiming that the most successful people wake up at 4 am. Her reply went, simply, “Oh, piss off.”
All of these things are fine. The delicate ecosystem of Medium has held itself intact so far, as has the ecosystem of high school dances, with parking lot kids inhabiting their zone and the dance-floor kids inhabiting theirs. Far be it from me to call for any massive environmental changes.
The only problem is that I’ve been lying all this time. The truth of the matter, and the thing I’m here to confess to today, is that I write fiction, but I also love self-improvement articles.
Yes, I love those productivity articles. I consume in massive quantities tips for self-improvement. I’m a downright absolute junkie for self-improvement. I start every single day reviewing a checklist of approximately 50 items, and I end every day making sure I checked every box.
I’ve been keeping an even deeper, darker secret. I don’t just read self-improvement literature.
I want to write it.
An Observation of Ray Bradbury
I’m reminded of an observation made by Ray Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing (which happens to be my favorite book on the subject). In it, Bradbury observes that creative writers are frequently wary of “selling out” (which Mitch Horowitz defines with brilliant simplicity as “putting money before quality” in The Miracle Club) to commercial interests, but never think twice about another form of selling out.
The more subtle form of artistic compromise that Bradbury was talking about was the willingness to sacrifice one’s artistic vision for the approval of academics and the literati. For Bradbury, foregoing your desire to write about dragons and gnomes in order to appear intellectually serious and full of gravitas was no different from altering your artistic vision in order to make a quick buck.
I’d add to that that someone (namely, me) can also sell out to peers, trying to stay fixed in the narrow niche they’ve created for themselves. This is even more ridiculous because I highly doubt anyone cares nearly as much as I’ve built up in my mind. I’ve imagined myself into in-authenticity.
That time is over. Get ready for some mad positivity and New Thought whackadoo up in here, kids.
The Misunderstanding of Self-Improvement Literature
Most people call it “self-help” (though we fans prefer “self-improvement”) and most people still associate it with the kind of materialistic shallowness that marked the genre in the ’80s and ’90s. The reality is that it’s so much more than that.
The best works in the genre are not only, or even primarily, about making money. I don’t have any problem whatsoever with people wanting to make money, by the way. I want to make tons of it, personally. The more I have, the more I can give away to improve the lives of the people I love and the world in general, and the more control I have over my own freedom.
Still, though I don’t see anything wrong with getting wealthy through honest means, it’s inaccurate to say that that’s what the self-improvement genre is all about. That’s undoubtedly part of it, but the techniques shared in those books can be used for anything.
They can be used to increase creative output. To raise money for charity. To improve health and relationships. To be happier.
They can even be used to be a better person. I have proof of this from my own life.
A couple of months ago I added to my daily habits checklist to “issue honest praise.” I’ve always been quick to compliment, but having it on my list kept me conscious of it every day and had me looking for chances to do it in creative ways that would have real impact on people's lives.
Over that span of two months, I sent multiple emails acknowledging good work done by all kinds of people, including maintenance staff, bus drivers, and retail associates I encountered. On three of those occasions I received responses that assured me that those emails positively affected the lives of the people I recognized.
Whether it was simple acknowledgement of work well done or (in one case) an “employee of the month” nomination, those emails benefited real people's lives.
I doubt I would have thought to actually take the time to send those emails if it hadn’t been on my list. I likely would have thought about how it would be nice to do, but then not actually done it.
I learned the technique of of a daily habit checklist through Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits &Break Bad Ones by James Clear. I’ve also used it to help raise money for multiple sclerosis research.
None of this is credit to me. If I was a great person I’d not need to make lists of these things. My point isn’t to applaud myself or my little efforts to acknowledge people. My point is to applaud the potential for “self-improvement” and productivity enhancing techniques as ways positively affect the world, not “just” make more money.
Self-improvement literature doesn’t have to be slimy and shallow. It’s helped me become a better person (something I’m in desperate need of). It’s also helped me produce significantly more creative output. How?
Well, my friends, let me drop some knowledge that was dropped on me.
My daily habit is to write one single sentence of creative writing every day. The trick is that I always end up writing far more than that.
Getting started in anything is the hardest part. Once we get engaged and get into state, we’ll do more naturally and easily. Counter-intuitively, setting the bar so low that we fool ourselves into action ends up leading to more productivity, not less.
Sounds strange, but it works. Try it.
See what just happened?
I stealth-dropped some self-improvement on you all. Suckers.
Oh, come on. You know you loved it.