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.