The next step

I recently mentioned Terry Pratchett, who occasionally writes about a young witch, Tiffany Aching, and her obnoxious chums, the Wee Free Men, and if you haven’t read Sir Terry, you should. At any rate, he was still on my mind when I started writing this post, and I thought it appropriate to give a nod to his novel I Shall Wear Midnight, in which Tiffany opines that the world is full of signs; you just have to pick the one you like and go with that.

People who have followed this blog for a week or two know that this is the kind of life philosophy I can get behind.

I am often amused by people who talk in awestruck voices about the signs that led them this way or that; on any given day, I can find fourteen signs pointing me in fourteen different directions. A less-than-enthusiastic note from an editor means I should give up this writing gig. A great conversation with a friend means I should spend more time drinking coffee. A good exchange with a student means I should teach more classes. Dropping quarters while trying to feed the meter means I’m not careful with money, and should pay more attention. Dreaming of the Firebird I used to own means I should buy a sports car when I go to replace my current twelve-year-old sedan.

Often people tell me the lessons they’ve learned from these signs and I can’t help but think I would have learned a different one: an encounter with a drunk man that led one woman to “learn” that she should not stay out late is the kind of thing that made me “learn” I should study martial arts.

Still, that didn’t stop me from trying to look for signs when I started thinking about the next stage of my writing career. A few years ago, after the Dojo Wisdom series was first published, I looked around, trying to figure out what book to write next. I didn’t want to continue writing about martial arts, but there wasn’t anything else I was particularly expert in, nor was there anything I felt particularly motivated to become expert in. But I also wasn’t done saying things. I started working on my fiction, which was fine, but it’s very hard to make a living writing fiction, and I needed the kind of thing I could make a living at.

You would not believe the number of signs I followed, trying to figure out what the next thing was going to be and not finding it.  And then one day, a writer friend said to me, “You don’t need to figure out the rest of your life. You just need to take the next step.”

And that was when I saw The Sign, the One True Thing . . . okay, no, that was when I realized it didn’t really matter what I did as long as I did the damned thing, and took the next step, and stopped dithering over it.

So I asked myself the questions I should have asked a few years ago, but then I would have missed all the fun. Anyway. The questions had to do with what would people be interested in hearing about from me?  What did people like about Dojo Wisdom (which is my most popular book)? When people come to me for help, what are they asking for? And how does any of this link to the stories I tell about Jessica? And could it build an audience for the fiction I’m working on?

Then I realized I was trying too hard again. I just need the next step. The next step is not the unified field theory that incorporates all that I am. The next step is “What do I want to write about now that will potentially have an audience?”

And the answer was this: the process of mastery.

What comes after Dojo Wisdom? A broader understanding of mastery, and the lessons of mastery, and the process of mastery, an understanding that isn’t tied to one particular niche or subject matter.

[Lack of humility alert] I am a person who achieves things [end lack of humility]. Some of those things come with a roadmap: a Ph.D, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. But the most important ones don’t. How to be the mother my daughter needs me to be. How to be the kind of writer I am capable of becoming.

That is something I can talk about; it is a thing I live everyday, and it is a thing that other people on the same path may be glad to hear about.

Let me first say that this is not about a process of self-improvement in the traditional sense of you need to lose ten pounds and get a haircut. You’re already perfect and I love you just the way you are.

It is about mastery—becoming better at something that matters to you, whether that is horseback riding, Aikido, writing books, or training dogs. I don’t mean being more productive, although that can help. I don’t mean selling more widgets, though I agree that selling your widgets can be very satisfying.

I mean: how do you commit to the work, and do the work, and get better at the work?

I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and I hope you’ll tell me, in the comments or through e-mail, what your work is, the thing that matters (which is not necessarily your employment), and where you are on the path. And then let’s take the next step together.


  1. I'm glad to run into your blog again. I've read your very moving posts about your daughter and am glad to have read today's post, particularly as I find my own beginner blogging efforts beginning to take shape. It's good to be in the company of a master.

  2. I love this new direction, especially since I'm going in a new direction myself — one that I need to achieve mastery in.

    And signs? Me too. Bad interaction with a student = I should give up teaching e-courses. Good interaction = I should expand my e-course. And so on. 🙂

  3. My work: copywriting, mostly marketing material for small business. This is something I have enjoyed becoming better at over time.

    There are several things that matter (mostly not to do with work). I love to make things, especially clothing, for which I have a number of high level skills, gained through a life of crafting and a previous career in costume and fashion design. I want to build a strawbale house (with a permaculture garden – I want to grow and cook lots of our own food), and I plan to do this with my husband in a year or so. This is particularly exciting, as before I married him, this seemed a somewhat unattainable dream. I’d like to study project management and cabinet-making to help me along this path; I’m a hands-on kind of person.

    I also have an idea for a business involving building strawbale housing, which scares the crap out of me, because it’s such an ambitious idea. So far I’ve only thought about it a lot; I have yet to commit to anything.

    Is that the kind of thing you’re after?

  4. I used to classify myself as a woman who achieves things. I lived by mottos–"Just do it!," "Failure is not an option"–internally chanted until I reached my goal. Perfection wasn't something to which I should aspire, it was an expectation. I graduated college with an Honor's Scholar degree in psychology and statistics, a 4.0 GPA, and all the academic honors that involves. Biding time before grad school, I took a job in e-commerce, taught myself HTML and within 4 months was running a website with a billion dollar inventory. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't the soulless robot you are envisioning. I painted and wrote, spent time with my nieces and nephews, mentored an inner city teen. I fell in love and got married.

    Yet, I lived as though achievement was a given. Life, love, education were all things to be acquired–tasks to be mastered. Mastery was simply a matter of gritting one's teeth and pushing through. And, everything mattered. I couldn't let anything go.

    Then, I had my daughter. The most tragically perfect being I have ever had the honor of growing, of knowing and loving. In an instant we were introduced to a whole new world of fragility and medical instability. In that moment my life's work truly began. And, I learned that in reality very little matters. There is no mastery. There is only the journey. What matters are the moments and the imperfection. I discovered that the work is really just figuring out exactly what matters to you, fighting for it and letting go of the rest . Grad school? Academic honors? Money? Those things no longer even register. The work is figuring out how to survive in a world that I cannot control–one in which I and everything I love are completely vulnerable. And mastery, if it can be called that, is learning not only how to survive but how to thrive, how to live in this large, often cruel universe.

    For me, that is what I get out of your blog. The imperfect journey. I can relate to your stories of life, love, writing, and art blooming in otherwise dark and desolate places. And, I'll take that journey with you if you'll have me.

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