January 4, 2022

Setting Goals

 New year, new resolutions! Right?

I certainly have a long list of goals for this new year, a number of them with requisites to boot, as well as some significant changes to my lifestyle I'd like to implement. Of course, I know that I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew, which has often led me to give up on my goals in the past. However, this time around, I'm confident that I can hit most of the goals on my extensive list, without losing my motivation, my passion, or getting burned out.

Over my short break between the end-of-year holidays, I was able to catch up on a lot of podcasts that had been accumulating (like my never-ending TBR pile, it seems). And it was while listening to one of them on Flow(1), that I discovered this great book, The Art of Impossible*, by Steven Kotler.

One of the chapters in the book is on Goals. In it, Kotler states that, although it's been understood for thousands of years that goals are "primary motivators of human behavior," (a notion advanced by Aristotle, way back in the day), "not every goal is the same, nor is every goal appropriate for every situation and--most important--the wrong goal in the wrong situation can seriously hinder performance and actually lower productivity and motivation."

So, goal-setting is important (it can increase performance and productivity 11-25%, based on research by Latham and Locke), but it needs to be properly assigned.

To understand why having goals has such an effect on us, Kotler explains that it's all about how our brain's wired. Our brain evolved to be amazing at predicting outcomes by acquiring of information, recognizing patterns, and then deciding what to do based on the results from those. And because our brain's constantly flooded with info, but can only handle an finite portion of it(2), it's very important to give it specific goals so it can focus only on the targeted info, and filter out the rest.

Therefore, setting goals has been primordial to our survival.

But for goals to be most effective, we must first know our true motivation (our passion and drive). Not only that, but the greater the goal, the better the outcome and probability of success!

So, how should one go about setting these big goals? There are several chapters in The Art of Impossible that discuss the finer details of this, but essentially, you need to find what Kotler calls a Massively Transformative Purpose (ie, your mission(s) in life, based on your true passions) and set High and Hard Goals to move along the path to fulfilling that purpose.

High and Hard Goals should therefore be set based on how they help you advance your mission. Anything else should be considered a distraction and discarded. 

It's important to reiterate here that your goals and mission in life need to be aligned, for "[b]ig goals work best when there's an alignment between an individual's values and the desired outcome of the goal. When everything lines up, we're totally committed--meaning we're paying even more attention, are even more resilient, and are way more productive as a result."

AKA, you're less likely to give up on them.

The only word of caution Kotler gives, however, is that you should not be talking about your goals with others. Because doing so will give your brain the impression that it's already achieved those goals, and therefore make you less likely to achieve them.

Momentum, on the other hand, matters the most. You must set goals that are difficult, but still achievable. Otherwise, you'll give up (too much stress to handle). 

Of course, these High and Hard Goals can sometimes take years to achieve, so you also need to have smaller steps that get you to those bigger milestones. These smaller goals are designed to stretch you a little bit, but no be so hard that you're overwhelmed and lose your motivation. They do need to be clear, however, so that your brain doesn't have to wonder what to do next. This, in turn, means you'll be able to concentrate better. And, as an added bonus, it will also increase your motivation!

For example, one of my life missions is to become a storyteller that entertains people and fills them with wonder and inspiration. To do that, I need to write a lot of books (each an important milestone), and make them as good as possible. Smaller goals would thus be for me to write 1000 words a day until one book is done, then editing it, taking classes/reading more on the craft of writing, etc.

Basically, to figure out what your daily goals should be, you need to find a way to break down your bigger milestones into smaller, bitesize pieces: "this is exactly what the road to impossible looks like--a well-crafted to-do list, executed daily." Because these are manageable goals, you can accomplish these every day, and checking them off your list gets a dopamine boost as a reward. This, in turn, will make you crave to repeat your accomplishments the next day as well, and the day after that(3).

"Stacking little win atop little win atop little win is always the road toward victory."

So, in conclusion, Dream Big and Dare Greatly (4) :)

I wish you a wonderful and healthy 2022!

Sources and additional information:

(1) Flow, as Kotler defines it, is "an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best." When I'm writing, it's the state where I've managed to completely immerse myself in my story, nothing in the outside world exists to me in that moment, the words are pouring out of me almost faster than I can type them, and everything feels just right.

(2) Kotler states that "[e]very second, millions of bits of information floor into our senses. Yet the human brain can only handle about 7 bits of information at once, and the shortest time it takes to discriminate one set of bits from another is 1/18th of a second." According to Csikszentmihalyi who studied Flow, the max humans can process is about 126 bits of information per second. Kotler explains what this means by giving the following example: "To understand what another person is saying takes about 40 bits. If three people are talking at once, we're maxed out."

(3) Important note, Kotler states that it's important to also have some time off. "Recovery is critical to sustained peak performance." Being a workaholic is not the right approach either. You need downtime. So figure out what the max number of daily tasks you can perform each day on your road to greatness--not too few, but not too many either--and when you've checked them all off, that's your cue that you've had a successful day and you can get some R&R (without feeling guilty)!

(4) Inspired by a book from Brene Brown, Daring Greatly*, whose title was itself inspired by a speech from Theodore Roosevelt.

*Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission should you choose to buy the recommended item. If the link is an Amazon link, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

October 4, 2021

Copywork - A Writing Technique

Woman writing and reading

Since the dawn of time, people have learned their craft through apprenticeships, learning to immitate the craftsman or artist they were tied to, and helping them in their works in exchange for that knowledge. Then, as their own skills improved, they would diverge and start experimenting new things, finding their own style, and sometimes even outshone their master.

This is true of any of the great artists whose works have transcended time--Michaelangelo was apprenticed to painter Ghirlandaio who was himself known for his murals, while Da Vinci himself apprenticed in the workshop of Andrea del Verrochio. 

Even if they hadn't apprenticed directly with someone, they still learned through immitation of others' works. Mozart, praised as a genius in his time already, one as "such people come into the world once in a hundred years"(1), started off by mimicking what was in vogue at the time, and worked extremely hard all his life to continue to improve and innovate. "Quite a bit of the music is reassuringly routine; Hermann Abert writes, in his massive biography, that Mozart 'evolved along sound lines, without any supernatural leaps and bounds.'"(2)

Nowadays, artists still learn from the greats--imitating their works, from their composition and color choices, to their gestures and proportions, before applying bits and pieces of what they've learned from various artists to figure out their own style. Picasso's early work shows how he worked on his fundamentals, favoring a much more realist style, before he diverged to the more "modernistic easthetic"(3) for which he is known.

Plaster Male Torso
Picasso, 1893

"Good artists copy; great artists steal." ~

Steve Jobs (mis)quoting Picasso, referring to Stravinsky, derived from T.S. Eliot, influenced by W.H. Davenport Adams (4)

It is therefore surprising to me that copywriting is often ignored when teaching writing.  Sure, the Great Literary Works are taught in school, where students have to dissect meaning, themes, and historical impacts of the original texts. And, yes, we were always told to read as much as possible (advice repeated ad infinitum by any current author). But that, I find, is not enough to truly improve one's writing. It's still too...passive. 

Ron Friedman explained what copywriting entailed in his book Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success: 

"Both King and Hill were utilizing forms of copywork, a technique popularized by Benjamin Franklin and practiced by literary greats F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, and Hunter Thompson. It involves studying an exceptional piece of writing, setting it aside, and then re-creating it word for word from memory. (...) What makes copywork so effective is that it forces an artist or writer to do more than simply recall content. Reproducing a piece demands that he or she pay careful attention to the organizational decisions and stylistic tendencies reflected in an original work. It is an exercise that enables novices to relive the creative journey and invites them to compare their instinctive inclinations against the choices of a master."

Quill pen

Yes, it can seem tedious. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, the struggle is real for me too. 

But I believe that it's through continuous hard work and proper application of our newly learned skills that we will improve our writing.

Sources and Resources:

(1) Prince Kaunitz, Emperor Joseph II's chief minister, as reported in The New Yorker's article The Storm of Style - Listening to the complete Mozart, by Alex Ross

(2) The Storm of Style - Listening to the complete Mozart, by Alex Ross, The New Yorker

(3) Picassos' Incredible Childhood Paintains Reveal a Different Side of the Modern Artist, by Kelly Richman-Abdou, My Modern Met

(4) Quote investigator for "Good artists copy; great artists steal"

(5) 25 quotes to help you steal like an artist, by Austin Kleon

(6) Great Artists Steal, UVU School of the Arts

September 27, 2021

On This 28th of September 1943...


Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz

This excerpt is taken from Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, which I highly recommend to all and everyone.

   In the headquarters of the Workers Assembly Building on 24 Romersgade in Copenhagen, [Denmark,] the Social Democratic Party leaders have all convened. A visitor in a Nazi uniform stands before them. They are staring at him in shock.

   'The disaster is at hand,' the man is saying. 'Everything is planned in detail. Ships will anchor at the mooring off Copenhagen. Those of your poor Jewish countrymen who get caught by the Gestapo will forcibly be brought on board the ships and transported to an unknown fate.'

   The speaker is trembling and pale. Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz is his name. He will go down in history as 'the converted Nazi,' and his warning will work a miracle.

   The raid was set to take place on Friday 1 October 1943, following detailed plans drawn up by the SS. At the stroke of  8 p.m., hundreds of German troops would begin knocking on doors up and down the country to round up all the Danish Jews. They would be taken to the harbor and boarded onto a ship equipped to hold six thousand prisoners.

   (...) Up until this moment there had been no discriminatory laws, no mandatory yellow badges, no confiscation of Jewish property. Danish Jews would find themselves being deported to Polish concentration camps before they knew what had hit them.

   That, at least, was the plan.

   On the appointed night, (...) the Germans discovered that the Jews had been forewarned of the raid and that most had already fled. In fact, thanks to that warning, almost 99 percent of Denmark's Jews survived the war.

(...) 'The answer is undeniable,' writes historian Bo Lidegaard. 'The Danish Jews were protected by their compatriots' consistent engagement.'

Fleeing Denmark for Sweden

   When news of the raid spread, resistance sprang up from every quarter. From churches, universities and the business community, from the royal family, the Lawyers Council and the Danish Women's National Council--all voiced their objection. Almost immediately, a network of escape routes was organized, even with no centralized planning and no attempt to coordinate the hundreds of individual efforts. There simply wasn't time. Thousands of Danes, rich and poor, young and old, understood that now was the time to act, and that to look away would be a betrayal of their country.

   'Even where the request came from the Jews themselves," historian Leni Yahil noted, 'these were never refused.' Schools and hospitals threw open their doors. Small fishing villages took in hundreds of refugees. The Danish police also assisted where they could and refused to cooperate with the Nazis. 'We Danes don't barter with our Constitution,' stormed Dansk Maanedspost, a resistance newspaper, 'and least of all in the matter of citizens' equality.'

   Where mighty Germany was doped up on years of racist propaganda, modest Denmark was steeped in humanist spirit. Danish leaders had always insisted on the sanctity of the democratic rule of law. Anybody who sought to pit people against each other was not considered worthy to be called a Dane. There could be no such thing as a 'Jewish question.' There were only countrymen.

Denmark at Liberation
   In a few short days, more than seven thousand Danish Jews were ferried in small fishing boats across the Sound separating Denmark from Sweden. Their rescue was a small but radiant point of light in a time of utter darkness. It was a triumph of humanity and courage. 'The Danish exception shows that the mobilization of civil society's humanism [...] is not only a theoretical possibility," writes Lidegaard. 'It can be done. We know because it happened.'


   In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt makes a fascinating observation about the rescue of the Danish Jews. 'It is the only case we know,' she wrote, 'in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their "toughness" had melted like butter in the sun...'

The Oresund Bridge that now links Copenhagen, Denmark, to Malmo, Sweden, was built in 1999