This is my public service announcement. Everyone has a writer in them - sadly only a few people choose to press share. Hear me out.
This essay, my website and my Twitter threads are all part of my journey to write more and publish what I write. To turn from consumer to creator. My view is that anyone can be a writer, but their potential is left unfulfilled, limiting themselves to writing work emails, to-do lists and Whatsapp messages.
There are many talented people I respect and admire, who can easily become writers and make a significant impact by sharing their ideas. Many people may not want to publish their views or they may have enough on their plate already, but hopefully this piece can persuade someone, somewhere out there, to also put pen to paper.
What is a writer?
If you can capture your ideas, you can write. If you journal, you can write. If you send emails, you can write. Maybe make it less dry so we don’t scratch our eyeballs out, but it is writing. You are putting thoughts into written form.
Writing is not the exclusive domain of the pros, the creators. Writing does not have to be crafted, elegant prose written by someone with five degrees. Writing is not only about producing best-selling novels or the next Palme d’Or winning screenplay. Writing can be many things.
Write about your latest camping adventure, your mom’s sage life advice or why your favourite Netflix show is Rick and Morty (think we can all agree). Write about your process, how you built a website, created a Youtube video or produced a podcast. Write a deep review of the credit markets in China, the ultimate guide to clubbing in Berlin or the time you and four of your friends had to share a 2.5 x 2.5 meter bedroom in Tokyo (AirBnb fails could be a whole series come to think of it). The possibilities are endless. It all counts.
There is only one caveat, and this is important: to call it “writing” and become a “writer” you need to go one step further and publish your work.
If you are anything like me, clicking ‘share’ can be intimidating. For a long time I had this vague idea that one day I would write something and publish it online. One day the circumstances would be perfect. I would take a big cup of coffee to my study, sip some inspiration and crack out an essay. That day never came. I kept making excuses, I threw myself into work and other hobbies.
Until last week. After two years of false starts, my “one day” finally arrived. I am currently enrolled in Write of Passage, David Perell’s online writing course. My homework was to publish something last week. I had no other option but to do it.
What took me so long to click share and how can I make it easier to publish in future? Let’s talk about the Judge, the Imposter and the Allies.
One big stumbling block for me is thinking my work should be perfect. This feeling manifests as some inner judge evaluating my work and pointing out all its flaws. The Judge1 says things like:
“This essay has to be a masterpiece. Many people (my eleven subscribers) will read this and they are expecting BIG things. The next Wealth of Nations or the next Meditations. If I want to be a serious ‘writer’, my essays better knock people out of their socks.”
Obviously these thoughts are ludicrous, but they are difficult to shake off. I constantly need to remind myself to stop striving for perfection and stop comparing myself to the pros. Especially when I am only starting out.
Take Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator and the author of Hackers & Painters, as an example. Paul writes great essays. His work is close to my idea of perfection. Conversational, but with lots of depth. He can write about life (Life is Short), but he is also the foremost expert on the Lisp the programming language (What Made Lisp different). Both essays delight and captivate the reader and show his range as a writer.
Paul did not turn into an extraordinary writer overnight however. In his own words, “Before college[...] I wrote what beginning writers were supposed to write then, and probably still are: short stories. My stories were awful. They had hardly any plot, just characters with strong feelings, which I imagined made them deep.”2
It helps to remember that the pros (your idols) also had to start somewhere. What you see is the finished product, but they also had a lot to learn initially. Charles Bukowski worked for the US Post Office for many years and only published his first novel at the age of 50 (Post Office, incidentally). Chuck Palahnuick wrote Fight Club in his spare time while he worked as a diesel mechanic. Benjamin Franklin learned to write by summarizing the points in the essays of Addison and Steele and trying to recreate them. The list of examples is endless.
Do not listen to the Judge, he’s an arsehole. If you only publish when your work seems perfect, you won’t publish. And that’s a shame, because you have a lot to share with the world.
Clicking share also invokes feelings of being an imposter. The Imposter in me shouts:
“You’re an actuary John, stick to your pricing models. Who wants to read what you have to say? How dare you throw your name in the hat? None of your colleagues are publishing writing, take the hint. How many actuaries out there are successful writers? Maybe there’s a reason for that…”
These feelings are always present and apparently this is completely natural. According to Steven Bartlett3, one of the UK’s most respected entrepreneurs and the youngest ever dragon on Dragon’s Den, “the feeling of imposter syndrome is a feeling of anxiety around the fact that ‘I don’t belong here’ and ‘I am uncomfortable right now’”. To combat these feelings of self-doubt, Steven employs a simple and effective perspective shift. In these situations he says, “I am uncomfortable right now and that’s how it should be, this is how I grow as a person, this is exciting.” He embraces the discomfort.
Feeling like an imposter is perfectly normal for anyone outside of their comfort zone. In my job, I am confident that I can handle what’s thrown at me, but this new writing journey is really challenging me. I can step away and turn back to safer waters or I can see this as an opportunity to grow.
Now that we’ve silenced the inner judge and embraced feeling like an imposter, there is only one step left. You need to find your “Why”, your reasons for writing. Your reasons are your Allies. They keep you motivated through the ups and downs of this journey.
My reasons for writing are simple. I’m trying to clarify my thoughts. Writing forces me to find the errors in my thinking. I also want to help people. While my job is rewarding, I want to have a bigger impact if possible. Through writing, I can expand my reach further than the five people I email at work each day. Maybe someone out there will read this essay and find it interesting or have a chuckle or feel inspired.
Most importantly, I want to create more than I consume. We live in a unique age. It has never been easier to create an online presence and share content with an audience. It also has never been easier to be a passive internet voyeur consuming information like an endless buffet of junk food. I am tired of only being a consumer. I also want to join the other side. I strive to be what Theodore Roosevelt described as The Man in the Arena, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” Put another way:
“You hit escapee velocity when you like personal growth more than passive entertainment.” - David Perell
Graphic from @GoLimitless.
Your “Why” can be anything. Use your reasons as allies. Publishing your ideas is better than not having them see the light of day.
Good luck! Hopefully next time you go sit down with your cup of coffee you won’t strive to be perfect, you will embrace the discomfort and you will find a reason to click share.
- I first heard of this concept during a Write of Passage mentor session with Michael Ashcroft. “The Judge” very accurately describes the ideas of perfectionism that creep into my process.
- From What I Worked On by Paul Graham.
- From How to beat imposter syndrome by Ali Abdaal.
Thanks to Jess Schanz, Michael-John Truter, Nic Rosslee, Danny Naz and Bob Barnard for reading drafts of this essay.