Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Is Writing Essentially a Labor of Love?

"There is a special place in life that only you may share
a little path that bears your name, awaiting you somewhere
There is a hand that you must hold, a word that you must say
a smile that you must give, for there are tears to blot away."
 (Read entire poem)

Helen Gamble with Richard Bay in The Practice.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with a senior editor in a leading media house in Kenya.

As our meeting progressed, and having exhausted the crux of the main agenda, he shared priceless insights about the writing profession.He reminded me that many writers lack the grace to realize that writing invariably has dual benefits. For starters, every published article or book adds on to your experience, builds your name and presents a learning opportunity to write better next time. Secondly, monetary compensation is an additional reward. Sadly, many new writers focus too much on the monetary rewards of writing.

In addition, writing in itself is a journey. It is a process that takes years, if not a lifetime. The secret therefore is to enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
Many will not notice as you establish yourself gradually, one word at a time. They shall however notice suddenly once your book tops the bestsellers list. It takes time.

Later on, I had lunch with my adorable sister Winni in town, to discuss among many other things, our joint venture Complit Motivation & Inspiration.

I have at times felt discouraged, worn out, and have questioned my decision to become a full-time writer. Thankfully, I have never once thought of quitting.

In such trying moments, it helps to realize that it is all for a reason. Just like Helen Gamble felt after losing a case that elicited public discontent since a criminal everyone felt was guilty was set free. Helen seriously considered quitting. But the Assistant District Attorney, Richard Bay, gave her the following speech:
Helen Gamble: I need it, Richard. Give it to me.
Richard Bay: What?
Helen Gamble: The speech. Why we do what we do.
Richard Bay: Oh, I am not really in the mood after...
Helen Gamble: PLEASE, Richard. I NEED it. Please give it to me. And don't just phone it in.
Richard Bay: Helen...
Helen Gamble: Please! Can't you see how demoralized I am?
Richard Bay: OK. (takes a deep breath) There are heroes in this world. They're called District Attorneys. They don't get to have clients, people who smile at them at the end of the trial, who look them in the eye and say, "thank you." Nobody is there to appreciate the District Attorney, because we work for the state. And our gratitude comes only from knowing there's a tide out there. A tide the size of a tsunami coming out of a bottomless cesspool. A tide called crime, which, if left unchecked will rob every American of his freedom. A tide which strips individuals of the privilege of being able to, to walk down a dark street or take twenty dollars out of an ATM machine without fear of being mugged. All Congress does is talk, but it's the District Attorney who grabs his sword, who digs into the trenches and fights the fight. Who dogs justice day, after day, after day without thanks, without so much as a simple pat on the back. But we do it. We do it, we do it because we are the crusaders, the last frontier of American justice. Knowing that if a man cannot feel safe, he can never, never feel free.
Helen Gamble: Thank you.

Writing can often feel like a draining effort that few appreciate. Many writers, even the most successful ones, often speak of writing as a journey, a process wrought with countless ups and downs. When she delivered a commencement address at Harvard in 2008, J.K.Rowling highlighted the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.

From the foregoing speech,following are salient gems:
  • Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.
  • So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.
  • Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.
  • ..personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
  • As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
Finally, should you ever feel hopeless as a writer, Dionne Farris has a message for you:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Owning Your Story

The Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) Big Book is one of my top favorite reads. Every once in a while, I go back to read sections of the book. Specifically, the personal stories of 42 alcoholics who "recovered from their malady."

One of these stories, titled Safe Haven [PDF], is the impressive tale of an alcoholic who lost nearly all. Having first tasted alcohol at age 13, this AA stole and robbed to satiate a growing appetite for alcohol. Becoming a DJ at a local radio station only made it worse, since partying and drinking went hand in hand.

Inevitably, alcoholics either sober up, are locked up or ultimately covered up. This A.A. was locked up for 20 years, and this fortunately came with another chance at life.

Safe Haven is quite a story of hope, for within it lies several profound statements and gems. I have quoted some of these elsewhere in this blog. Today, the spotlight shines on this:

From experience, I've realized that I cannot go back and make a brand-new start. But through A.A., I can start from now and make a brand-new end.

In addition to the A.A. story above, I took time this past weekend to read an interesting post on the Mind Body Green site. It is about acknowledging, accepting and taking pride in our bodies. Our naked bodies. The section that caught my attention is on owning one's own story:

Your body tells your story. When you get to know your body, you get to own your story. And when you own your story, you get to write the ending.

In view of the foregoing, I get quite concerned when I see people trying every day, to earn other people's approval. Many, oblivious to the dangers of stereotypes, are getting into debt, buying things they do not need, wearing clothes they are not comfortable in, doing jobs that offer no lasting fulfillment, staying in relationships that add no value... just to meet societal demands, to fit in, to please their peers, to appear trendy and fashionable, to belong and feel like they've made it.

It is important that any person worth his or her wealth take a stand and take charge of destiny. It may not be easy to sing your won song, but it is worth it. Make your own music, if need be and define your success. Free yourself from other people's expectations. Shape your destiny. Be not afraid to be unique and instead appreciate your identity. Shun peer influence. Own your story for only then can you write the ending - a brand-new end.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Mistaking what is Urgent for what is Important

How often do distractions get in the way of achieving long-term goals?

Yesterday, something reminded me of this post on Willpower that I wrote earlier this year. It was singularly inspired by a podcast titled The Science of Willpower thanks to KQED public radio.

In the aforementioned podcast, one of the guests speaks about how we often submit to the attention of urgent things, and thus get distracted from the more important things we ought to be focused on.
In hindsight, the urgent matters that keep distracting us may in fact be important in their own right, but not that important.

It is a failure to stick to what's important, and often taking time to other "urgent" matters that routinely slows or ultimately prevents us from achieving long term goals. Your priorities may in fact be right, but what you keep doing that takes you away from an important task makes a big difference in the end.

The solution is rather easy (I mean easy to say than to do) - delaying gratification.

Here's the KQED Science of Willpower podcast once again:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What Makes us Human?

Note: This post has been cross-posted on Pete on Books.

Yesterday, I posted the following photo on Facebook.

It is the book I intend to read next, once I'm done with Cindy Trimm's Commanding Your Morning and Mbugua Mumbi's Becoming an 'A' Student in Life.
A comment on that Facebook post has made it necessary to explain what the book is all about. And please note this is not a book review at all, just a sneak peek.

Well, this book is inspired by talks that were presented at a symposium held in Oxford, in March 2006.

The book, put simply, is an attempt to answer the following questions:
Are we half ape or half angel? Is it our cognitive abilities, our use of tools, our story-telling, our beliefs, our curiosity, our ability to cook, our culture, that make us human?

These are the book chapters:
  1. Imitation Makes us Human
  2. Memory, Time and Language
  3. Why are Humans not just Great Apes?
  4. The Hominid that Talked
  5. Half Ape, Half Angel?
  6. Material facts from a non-materialist perspective
  7. What Makes us Human? Our Ancestors and the Weather
  8. Curiosity and Quest
  9. Human Evolution and the Human Condition
  10. The Place of "Deep Social Mind" in the Evolution of Human Nature
  11. Causal Belief Maes us Human
  12. The Cooking Enigma.
The book What Makes us Human? is available on Amazon and elsewhere across the web.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sharing Our Knowledge and Experiences With Others

"I believe that children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride...

Everybody is searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to..."
- Whitney Houston.

The 2013 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results were officially released yesterday by Education Cabinet Secretary, Professor Jacob Kaimenyi.
Thanks to both the overall and national schools rankings, I do feel there is an urgent need to rethink and actually do something about academic performance and the success of learning institutions in Kenya.

Sleeping Giants

A top performing school that I attended is now ranked 26th overall and 15th among National schools.
Looking back, Mang'u High School has always been among the top ten for decades, and has attained top position for a good number of years.

I do believe such drastic change in performance provides a most needed opportunity to reflect and identify the reasons why this and other schools are no longer performing as expected.
Also, and of more importance, this also serves as a poignant reminder of just how easily the mighty can fall. History has shown time and again, that the mighty do fall, with the following being both stages of decline and warning signs of impending doom:
  1. hubris born of success
  2. undisciplined pursuit of more
  3. denial of risk and peril
  4. grasping for salvation
  5. capitulation to irrelevance or death
 Whatever has in KCSE 2013 happened to Starehe Boys Centre and School, Mang'u High School and others should be a case study for us all, a cautionary tale for top schools and a source of hope for those who refuse to believe that top positions are the reserve of a chosen few. Schools which have performed dismally in the past now know that they need not acquire a culture of submission and despair. Likewise, top schools that house the elite and have acquired status now realize they can no longer promote the belief that there is a special few.

The Author's Note in Samuel M. Wamae's 'How to Win in the Coming Jua Kali Boom' contains the following enduring insight:

Status, wealth or attainment are the result of endeavor and not natural endowment... people of status continue to fall from grace and others with humble beginnings attain prominence.

Now is the Time to Act

In view of the foregoing, what can we as individuals do to make things better?

I have in recent days decided to share my past experiences that resulted in exemplary academic performance for over a decade of my life (between 1987 and 1998), during which time I consistently attained top position and remained top in class both in Nderu Primary and Mang'u High schools. In both primary and secondary school, I witnessed near impeccable academic success - both mine and that of my classmates. There is something students, parents and educators can learn and gainfully apply from such that.

For this reason, I have already started writing this book and commenced speaking sessions. It is my understanding that if we share both our knowledge and experiences, we can positively influence those who need those insights most.

Today's students are undoubtedly facing a wide array of challenges both in their academic pursuits and other aspirations in life. True, they do have different distractions to deal with than we had.
While these challenges may be new, and the tools with which they'll be met modern, the values upon which academic success depends remain old.

It is for this reason that I have decided to fully address myself in activities whose primacy is improvement in academic performance for our children, for that is what matters most to them now.
In any case, twenty years of each person's life are typically spent in school. Two decades is a lengthy period of time, and worth taking seriously.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Stop Living a Limited Life

"Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."
 - Cecil Beaton.

Yesterday while reading some stuff on Wikipedia, I came across the following words by Steve Jobs, that I first heard in 'One Last Thing' on PBS:

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Steve says it all so damn well, I have nothing at all to add.


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