It’s that time when we look back over the previous 12 months and start thinking about the coming year. What have I done? Where am I now? Where am I going?
To be honest, I gave up making new year’s resolutions a long time ago, when I realised that convincing myself to stop smoking or lose weight during a season of festivities was just hopeless. (Although, ironically, I did manage to quit smoking in mid-December about 20 years ago.)
However, the older I get, the more I come to understand that if you want to live a creative life, then goal-setting is not an option, but a necessity. However much I squirm and wriggle – I have a strange aversion to feeling compelled to do anything at all – I simply cannot ignore the evidence in my own back yard that setting goals really works if you do it properly.
Here’s the thing: just over two years ago, Battlegames, the bimonthly magazine I edit and design was merged with Miniature Wargames, a monthly title, and I was given the task of putting together the new, combined publication. When it dawned on me that my workload had more than doubled (because the hybrid offspring was larger than Battlegames had ever been), it really pulled me up short. How on earth could I fit this into my already – to me – busy schedule?
Well, you know what? It turns out that I wasn’t quite as busy as I thought I was and, being a born grafter, I just knuckled down and got on with it. Thirty-two issues later, I’m still here, uploading artwork to the Warners Plc online system on time, month in, month out.
How on earth did I do it? Seriously, I often wonder myself.
I think the key is this: I had to do it. It’s my job. It’s what I do. I couldn’t let the readers down, and there was no way I was going to make a fool of myself by not meeting the professional standards I had set. The potential of incurring the wrath of my new masters at Warners, now that the magazine has been sold on, has never really occurred to me – it simply would never come to that.
I just turn up and do the work.
If any of you interested in being creative for a living haven’t yet read Stephen Pressfield’s Turning Pro (see link below), then I suggest you do so now. In essence, he describes this very attitude. Put your bum in the chair and write. Surprisingly, when you do that, good things sometimes happen.
Now, I’m not going to disguise the fact that one of the results of my monthly workload is that when each issue is done, I’m tired. Really tired. Nor is the production of an issue the endpoint of my working month – there’s administration to do, accounts for the contributions, and of course the ongoing business of being a magazine editor, assessing new submissions, drumming up images to accompany many of them, liaising with the ad sales staff, communicating with folk at Warners’ head office, and handling the armoury of social media tools that are, nowadays, an inescapable part of the job. (And, to be fair, one of the more enjoyable aspects – typesetting really isn’t that exciting most of the time!)
The fatigue is exacerbated by health issues. I have Type 2 Diabetes and, let’s be honest, I’m not as svelte as I once was.
I’m fat. Portly. A big chap. Stout. Rotund. Obese. Tubby. Corpulent. Paunchy. Gorbellied. If you were kind and loved me a great deal, you might call me “cuddly” or “solid” or “big boned”.
So, with you rubbing your eyes at the sheer flabbiness of that description, the point is this: how do I find the energy to invest in other creative projects despite the fatigue? Of course, in reality, the question is how do any of us find the energy? In my case, I’m dealing with a problem that many would, I’m sure, love to have – the hangover after creating a dozen publications a year. At least I can say, “Hey, look, I did those!” The vast majority of people are dealing with nothing quite so fluffy, but instead wrestle with the grind of 9-5, or unsociable shift work, or serious illness, or caring for elderly relatives or young children…
Frankly, why don’t I just shut the fuck up and get on with it?
Indeed. Why not?
Ah, it’s all in the mind, you see.
I read some statistics somewhere that came from a study into alumni from a university in the USA. They had tracked the progress of students at regular intervals, every five years or so, over a long period. Those who had set written goals for their life at the start achieved significantly better outcomes in terms of their education, work, income, health and situation in life than those who had not. Moreover, those goals were concrete, which is to say that they were very specific and often very detailed. So, instead of saying “I want a nice car”, they would say “I want a Rosso Red Ferrari 488 GTB”. Moreover, instead of dreaming of owning such a glamorous machine “eventually”, they would be much more specific – “by my 40th birthday”, for example.
So, concrete goal, specific and measurable time to achieve it.
Think of a golfer. I know, how boring is that? Okay, let’s switch to something of which I actually have experience – a discus thrower. (I’m choosing an individual athlete because there are all sorts of other dynamics that can affect a team game.)
Our discus thrower – let’s call him Henri – has a certain amount of natural talent and decides to have a go at the local athletics club open day. Without much effort, he can lob the 2kg discus out to, say, 35 metres. Hey ho. I can tell you, every lunk in the country could do much the same if they didn’t injure themselves in the process. But he rather enjoys it, and fancies doing a bit of athletics during the summer, so he joins the club. Next week, he meets Bob, the regular throw events guy, about the same size as himself but a few years older, who does a bit of training once a week. He takes a look at Henri, steps into the 8-foot circle, spins around and sends one out to the 40 metre line, a perfectly competent club-level throw.
Now, unless Henri is a complete knucklehead, he shouldn’t be disheartened, because he should realise that the difference between him and Bob isn’t physical size, it’s practice. So he sets himself the goal of being able to beat Bob in club competitions, and starts turning up to practice on Wednesday evenings. The discus is a highly technical event, involving building up torque in the waist which is then released by the whip-like action of the arm, balance at high speed as you turn across the circle, and then ballistics and wind direction affect the flight of the discus itself. Trust me – I have many memories of doing everything just right, only to see the wind coming from the wrong quarter kill the flight of the equipment stone dead. Oh, but when everything is perfect…
A couple of months in, and by the late summer, Henri is matching Bob throw for throw and even edging occasionally out to 41 or 42 metres. The club coach realises that Henri has potential, and takes him aside.
“Look,” says Donald the coach, “you could be a good thrower. I think you could be at least county level, or even compete at the Nationals. But you need to be throwing much farther than this – 45 metres at least, and 50 metres plus if you want to compete at the highest level. And the Olympics – well, gold is usually won with 70 metres or so.”
Now, Henri has a choice: he can either say “What? No way! I’ll never manage that!” Or, he can say “Wow! That would be amazing! Okay, what would I have to do to achieve that?”
Assuming Henri chooses path B, rather than quitting immediately, the answer to his question is, of course, “A lot of hard work”. In fact, in order to become an Olympic champion, he would have to dedicate his life to it over an extended period. Few athletes win a gold medal at their first attempt, so realistically, we’re talking four to eight years of effort, during which his whole life would need to be structured to support the attempt, including eating, sleeping, exercise, resting and so on. In addition, he would need a circle of supportive and understanding family and friends who appreciate just how important this is to Henri and are prepared to sacrifice social time with him.*
But here’s the thing. Our athlete sets specific and – literally – measurable goals. They want to throw the discus over 40 metres, over 50 metres, over 60 metres… They have to imagine themselves being that person, running through the perfect throw in their mind, over and over and over again. Then they have to work backwards, asking “In order to carry out that perfect throw in five years’ time, what, specifically, do I need to do now, and next week, next month, next year…?”
And here’s where the vast majority of us stumble. We just groan as we try to get up from the sofa after a hard day, and mutter “I must lose some weight”, or stub out another cigarette and say “I really must quit”, or look at the names in our address book and think “I ought to give Diane a call” – let alone “I might write that novel this year” or “I’d really like to work for myself”.
The problem is, we’re giving ourselves a get-out clause. We might have the best intentions in the world, but based on our own, previous, failed attempts, and the evidence of the vast majority of people around us, we see these things as hard, and are therefore already providing ourselves with excuses for not doing the thing, rather than enduring the imagined hardships of actually doing it.
Time to think back. How do I produce a dozen magazines a year? I just do it. The option of not doing it does not exist. There is no choice to make, it simply has to be done.
Are you a parent? Is there a choice about feeding your children at mealtimes? Assuming you’re one of the vast majority of responsible parents, the answer is of course “No” – you just do it, automatically, without thinking about it.
If you’re an athlete and you’ve made the decision that you want to be that Olympic champion, then all choice about your path is also removed. You must do this, then that, then this, and that, over and over and over again, day in and day out, come rain or shine, sickness or health, because you are thinking about becoming, not staying as what you currently are.
There’s an old saying: “If you want to achieve different results, don’t keep doing what you’re doing now”.
If I want to go to Southampton, I’d better get off the road to Dover. If I don’t want to be an alcoholic, I’d better stop drinking. If I want to be a concert pianist, I’d better learn the piano. If I want to be a painter, I’d better get out my brushes. And if I want to be a writer, I’d better turn off the TV, put my bum in the chair, fire up the Mac and start writing.
As I draw this ramble to a close, just as the year is finally fizzling out like a damp candle, I wish you well in making your choices about who and what you want to be, not just in the coming year, but in the new life you will be creating for yourself. It’s rather like shedding a skin – I don’t want to be that overweight, grumpy, frustrated git any longer, so who do I want to be, and what do I need to do to become my better self?
Here’s hoping I take some of my own advice. We’ll find out this time, next year.
Have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016, whoever you choose to be.
*When I was much, much younger, I was that discus thrower. But then Nature handed me some genetic cards that meant I stopped growing any bigger – successful discus throwers tend to be well over 6 feet tall with long levers – and after competing in two National Championships for my county, I then discovered girls in a big way… My longest throw was 51.45 metres and I’m told it’s still the school record.
Photo of Robert Harting: Source: Michael Steele/Getty Images Europe
“The Thinker” by Rodin: Source: Wikimedia