This post by Mark Cunningham originally appeared at Soul Shelter on 08 January 2008. The article has been revised for Success Daily.

My vocation entails years of labor often resulting in maddeningly unquantifiable results. Because this is so, it has revealed to me a few things about the elusive nature of fulfillment, both personal and professional.

Rewind to ten years ago, when I had the clearest epiphany of my life. I was nineteen years old and spending a college semester in London, and the bolt of lightning struck during a ride on the London Underground one afternoon. The girl I loved was sitting beside me (I’d followed her from California to England, where she was studying for a year). I leaned and whispered my secret: “I’m going to be a writer.”

The promise of personal fulfillment
Since earliest boyhood I’d enjoyed dreaming up stories, I’d kept journals and written poems for years, and knew I had a natural gift of kinds, so I nurtured a passionate desire to devote myself to the work of the pen. This vocation, of the many I could imagine, seemed to promise the greatest personal fulfillment. Immediately after returning home from London, in a craze of determination, I started working on a nonfiction manifesto. I knew virtually nothing of how to produce a compelling book, but believed passion and truthfulness, when bolstered by small native talent, would yield literary brilliance.

Perhaps it’s needless to say that my manifesto never saw the light of day. Another four solid years of hard work and perseverance were required before I managed to create literary material that merited publication—a short story.

During that four-year period I wrote and scrapped a second full-length manuscript, but the short story was published in a national literary magazine. Two years after that (six years since returning home from London) my first novel appeared in hardcover on bookstore shelves across the country. My second novel was published only recently.

That beautiful girl from the London tube has now been my wife for eight years, and all this time she’s been an unflagging supporter of my by-no-means lucrative pursuit. We both believed, early on, in the true value of art: a humanistic, even spiritual value transcending money. We still do. This conviction has helped us avoid delusions of wealth. Despite today’s countless stories of break-out novels and meteoric best-seller successes, literary art is one of the roughest, most overgrown and ill-maintained highways to financial security.

My wife and I have always worked hard to simplify our lives (see my post, “Simplify, Simplify!“), to reduce our material necessities, and have made some very difficult sacrifices in order to continue doing work that fulfills us (for six nervous years we had no health insurance). For my wife these days, fulfillment means teaching high school English. For me, as ever, it means writing books. You can see we’re a far cry from model capitalists.

In spite of some great successes (my first novel was glowingly reviewed, nominated for a prestigious award, and even earned me royalties) living by writing continues to be a struggle, requiring—as ever—extreme determination and ceaseless hard work. And naturally, this artistic existence would be completely impossible without my wife’s moral and financial support (she’s the breadwinner in our house). No doubt this will be the case for some time, for even now I receive a few rejections per week.

The feeling of fulfillment
What does it feel like to strive for such a personal vision, and how does fulfillment manifest itself?

Well, I’ve slowly come to understand that I’ll never attain my vision of “becoming” a writer, because every time I sit down at my desk I find myself beginning over again: reminded, by the hard work I do every day, that the feeling of being a Writer (with a capital “w”) will never arrive. I imagine this kind of thing is true for anyone who wishes to attain excellence in their work. Ultimately, attainment matters less than commitment. That, to me, is strangely comforting.

But when does fulfillment arrive if one is always at a beginning?

It’s all too easy, sometimes to convince myself that “fulfillment” and “financial security” are one and the same. In my worst moments I fall into fantasies of a golden prize that lies somewhere just ahead—a definitively measurable accomplishment that will eradicate all financial concerns and deliver a conclusive feeling of Success (with a capital “s”). Sometimes the fantasy is seeing my book title on the New York Times Bestseller list. Sometimes it’s having one of my novels adapted for a major motion picture.

But in my clearest, most truthful moments, I know fulfillment is to be found by recognizing something simpler and more profound. I guess you could put it this way: My destiny is already unfolding around me. What I want to happen is happening now. I’m a published novelist and am living my life as a writer. My continuing struggles—rather than undermining my achievements—are reminders that it’s all for real. I’m working, actively working, at the thing that fulfills me most. I was lucky, early on, to find some wise words in the Bhagavad Gita. They’ve helped to guide me for years now:

Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action. Avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction.

For me, that’s what fulfillment means: sitting down at the desk and working — every day.

{ 2 comments }

For much of my adult life I’ve been shackled by fear. I’ve been afraid to try new things, afraid to meet new people, afraid of doing anything that might lead to failure. This fear confined me to a narrow comfort zone. Recently, however, I made a single small change that has helped me to overcome my fear, and allowed me to get more out of life.

A few years ago, somebody at Ask Metafilter posted a question looking for books about self-confidence. One person recommended Impro by Keith Johnstone. Intrigued, I borrowed it from the public library. It blew my mind. Though it’s a book about stage-acting, several of the techniques it describes are applicable to everyday life.

I was particularly struck by the need for improvisational actors to accept whatever is offered to them on stage. In order for a scene to flow, an actor must take whatever situation arises and just go with it. (Watch old episodes of Whose Line is It Anyway to see this principle in action.) Johnstone writes:

Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer interrupt the action. [...] This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theater. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.

[...]

These ‘offer-block-accept’ games have a use quite apart from actor training. People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding.

That passage had a profound effect on me. I thought about it for days. “What if I did this in real life?” I wondered. “Is there a way I could adapt this to help me overcome my fear?” I began to note the things that I blocked and accepted. To my surprise, I blocked things constantly — I made excuses not to do things because I was afraid of what might happen if I accepted.

I made a resolution. I decided that instead of saying “no” to things because I was afraid of them, I would “just say yes”. That became my working motto: “Just say yes”. Any time anyone asked me to do something, I agreed to do it (as long as it wasn’t illegal and didn’t violate my own personal code of conduct). For the past few years, I’ve put this philosophy into practice in scores of little ways. But the power of “yes” has made larger changes to my life, too, has exposed me to things I never would have done before.

  • I used to be afraid to meet and talk with strangers. As my personal finance blog has grown, so too has the chance to meet new people. Whereas I used to avoid situations that would have forced me to interact with strangers, now I say “yes” when these opportunities come along. As a result, I’ve met some amazing people.
  • Soon after I started Get Rich Slowly, editors and agents began to approach me. I always turned them away. I was scared to write a book. Eventually, I realized I was blocking again. I decided to overcome my fears and accept an offer. As a result, I wrote Your Money: The Missing Manual, and I’m proud of the results. (Plus, I actually wrote a book!)
  • After a disastrous radio interview a few years ago (more about this later), I swore I’d never go on radio or television again. But as part of my resolve to say “yes”, I’ve had to overcome my apprehension. Sure, I sound like a dork a lot of the time — and I even gave another disastrous TV interview — but I’ve actually grown more confident and capable. My interviews aren’t good yet, but they’re not disastrous either.
  • The blog and the book have also provided all sorts of chances to challenge my fear of public speaking. One of my friends works as a career counselor at a nearby university. Every year, he asks me to present a talk to graduating seniors about the basics of personal finance. The old me would refuse out of hand, but only because I’m afraid. Now I say “yes”. I’ve also spoken at a public library, a bookstore, and in front of a regional organization of financial planners.
  • And, of course, there have been countless other opportunities to say “yes” over the years. I’ve said “yes” to food, business deals, trips across the country, writing gigs, games and exercise, and more.

These things may seem minor to extroverts, but for me these were big steps. These experiences were new, and I wouldn’t have had them if I hadn’t forced myself to just say yes.

Note: Again, I need to stress that I don’t say “yes” to everything. The point here is to say “yes” to the things that scare me, not to the things that are gross or dangerous or stupid. My goal is to overcome fear.

Most of my experiences from my “just say yes” campaign have been positive, but not all of them. I’ve had some failures, too. Surprisingly, I’ve learned more from the bad experiences than I have from the good.

In 2007, for example, a Seattle radio station asked me to do a telephone interview about retirement savings. “I’m not a retirement expert,” I told the woman who contacted me, but then I realized I was making excuses. I was blocking because I was scared. “But I’ll do it,” I said. Ultimately my radio appearance was a disaster. I got stage-fright and became tongue-tied. But you know what? I don’t care. I failed, but at least I tried. After the interview, I e-mailed the woman to apologize and to ask for advice. She was sympathetic, and gave me some great pointers. Next time somebody asks for a radio interview, I’ll do better.

For too long, fear of failure held me back. Failure itself didn’t hold me back — the fear of it did. When I actually try something and fail, I generally get right back up and do it again, but better the second time. I pursue it until I succeed. But often I convince myself that I can’t do something because I’m going to fail at it, so I don’t even bother to try.

Since I’ve learned the power of yes, I’ve begun to act as if I’m not afraid. Whenever I feel fear creep upon me, I act as if I’m somebody else. I act as if I’m somebody stronger and braver. Motivational speaker Brian Tracy says:

If you want to develop courage, then simply act courageously when it’s called for. If you do something over and over again, you develop a habit. Some people develop the habit of courage. Some people develop the habit of non-courage.

Tracy recommends that any time you encounter the fear of failure, you simply tell yourself, “I can do it.” Say it again and again and then do it. What’s more, he says, tell others that they can do the things they’re frightened of. How many times have you seen somebody excited about a new project become totally deflated when others tell them why it won’t work. Don’t be like that. Tell the person, “You can do it.” Be supportive.

Tracy is famous for asking the question: What would you dare to dream if you knew you wouldn’t fail? This is a powerful concept. What could you do if you stopped telling yourself “no” and simply tapped into the power of yes?

Aside from learning the power of yes, there are other ways to fight fear and develop a more courageous attitude.

  • Start small. Many people are afraid to make phone calls, or to approach a clerk in a store. Begin by practicing these little habits. A clerk in a book store answers hundreds of questions a month. There’s no reason to be frightened of asking yours.
  • Try one new thing each week. It doesn’t have to be big. Learn a new skill, have lunch with an acquaintance, do something for a friend. Once every week, say “yes” where you might have said “no” before.
  • Exercise mindfulness. When fear creeps into your head, name it for what it is, and let it pass by. I know this sounds new age and hokey, but it works. When somebody asks you to do something and your gut reaction is “no”, pause to examine that “no” and ask yourself, “Am I saying this simply out of fear? What would happen if I said yes?”
  • Act like you’re somebody else. Do you have a friend who is a great negotiator? The next time you negotiate, pretend you’re this person. This is more effective than you probably think!
  • Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then ask yourself, “What is the best thing that could happen?” Most of the time when I make this comparison, the upside far outweighs the downside.
  • Recognize that failures and mistakes are not the end. Often they’re the beginning. If you can pick yourself up after you do something wrong, and then learn from the experience, you’ll be a better person because of it.

Read more about conquering fear and worry:

  • The Instigator Blog offers five reasons to say yes.
  • How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie has a five-star rating on 107 reviews at Amazon, and rightly so. This is a classic book about courage in everyday life. Here’s a summary. (From the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
  • Yes Man is a book by Danny Wallace that chronicles his adventures as he says “yes” to everything for an entire year. I haven’t read this, but I’d like to.
  • Impro by Keith Johnstone is a book about improvisational acting. Sharp readers will find ways to apply these techniques to everyday life, to boost self-confidence and to overcome fear of failure.

We all have dreams, but most of us make excuses for not pursuing them. Often these excuses aren’t overt. It’s more a matter of inertia, of just ignoring the dreams, of maintaining the comfortable status quo. But you can break out of your comfort zone to get more out of life through the simple power of yes.

This article originally appeared on my Get Rich Slowly in a slightly different format.

{ 1 comment }

In 1920, the Vir Publishing Company printed Touchstones of Success, a book of inspiration for young men (this was 1920, remember, and women had only just begun to push against traditional roles) in which 160 “present-day men of achievement” shared their secrets. Today’s “touchstone of success” comes from Hudson Maxim, an inventor and mechanical engineer from Brooklyn.

From my parents I inherited an iron constitution and great physical strength, with energy, ambition and a creative imagination. I was able, therefore, to plow through a great deal of hardship and adversity to get a start in the world.

When I was a boy [Maxim was born 03 Feb 1853], half fed and scantily clothed, down in old inclement Maine, I had the toughest kind of a time. I had neither hat nor shoes, even in winter, until I was thirteen years of age.

I had no opportunity of learning my letters until I was nine years old. In my youth I worked for two things — existence and education.

Whatever impedes a man, if it does not actually stop him, aids his progress.cf Whatever hits a man helps him unless it hits him hard enough to break him or kill him. Cuts and bruises may bleed, but they build.

My father once said to me that the best safe-guard against wrong-doing is right work. At the age of twelve I made the resolution to make of myself all that I could, and to keep at it until I died, and I have never swerved from that resolution.

A man must always live with the man that he makes of himself, for all his actions keep him company. Therefore one should so live that he may be as good company for himself as possible. Every man is known to himself by the company that he keeps himself.

Every man who has done big things serves as a pace-maker to every young man with ambition to do big things. I have always been greatly influenced by the example of successful men.

I always realized , and every young man should realize, that the world owes nobody anything except what he earns. The only true estimate of a man is based on the use he is.

Every Saturday, Success Daily reprints one touchstone of success. Next week, Champ Clark, a congressman from Missouri, gives advice about hard work.

{ 0 comments }

In 1920, the Vir Publishing Company printed Touchstones of Success, a book of inspiration for young men (this was 1920, remember, and women had only just begun to push against traditional roles) in which 160 “present-day men of achievement” shared their secrets. Today’s “touchstone of success” comes from Paul Bartlett, a sculptor from Washington, D.C.

Note: Because today’s touchstone is so short (the shortest in the book), I’m filling in with biographical information, much of which has been cribbed from the Wikipedia.

Paul Wayland Bartlett was an American sculptor born in New Haven, Connecticut. When he was fifteen, he traveled to Paris to study under Emmanuel Frémiet. Bartlett’s masterwork was the House of Representatives pediment at the U.S. Capitol building, begun in 1908 and completed in 1916.

Bartlett’s short piece of advice from Touchstones of Success is:

My young friend, try to find what you can do best, and then do it all the time.

Simple, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

For many years, I struggled to be successful. I was depressed and had given up hope of ever finding any work that I loved. But I continued to practice my writing, and I eventually realized that writing is what I do best. I found a way to do it all all the time, and since then, I’ve achieved things I never thought possible.

Every Saturday, Success Daily reprints one touchstone of success. Next week, Hudson Maxim, an inventor and mechanical engineer from Brooklyn, gives advice about making good company of oneself. Photo by Andreas Praefcke.

{ 2 comments }

How to Declutter

by Leo 7 April 2010

I’ve been a simplifier and a declutterer for over a decade now, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but I’ve found that you have to keep coming back to revisit your clutter every once in awhile. Here are my top decluttering tips.

0 comments Read more →

How to Build a Life Map to Connect Your Daily Activities to Your Lifelong Dreams

by Trent 6 April 2010

This post by Trent Hamm from The Simple Dollar originally appeared at his site on 24 January 2007. The article has been revised for Success Daily. A while ago, I discovered a technique that helped me clarify my goals and dreams. It took some time (about an hour and a half), but when I was […]

0 comments Read more →

The Power of Commitment

by J.D. 4 April 2010

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.   All sorts of things occur to help one that […]

0 comments Read more →

Touchstones of Success: How to Succeed

by J.D. 3 April 2010

In 1920, the Vir Publishing Company printed Touchstones of Success, a book of inspiration for young men (this was 1920, remember) in which 160 “present-day men of achievement” shared their secrets. Today’s “touchstone of success” comes from E.C. Simmons, a merchant and manufacturer from St. Louis. The way to success in life is as plain […]

0 comments Read more →

Simplify, Simplify

by Soul Shelter 1 April 2010

“Simplify, simplify,” said Thoreau, and I wanted to heed his advice. The fewer my possessions and the smaller my quarters, the loftier my hopes could be—and the freer I could remain to realize them.

1 comment Read more →

Building Good Habits

by Leo 31 March 2010

Good habits aren’t born overnight. You can’t tell yourself, “Hey, self, I’m going to become an early riser, starting tomorrow morning!” No, good habits must be cultivated through daily practice.

0 comments Read more →