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Are You a Forest Type or a Tree Type?

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From unsplash; photographer unknown

 

“This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don’t, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake. As you now know well, such attention switching and perspective switching is depleting, and like multitasking, it uses up more of the brain’s nutrients than staying engaged in a single task.” – Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind

 

The old forest vs. trees spectrum, but I’m starting to see it in a different light. I’ve been reading this book for the past week or two, trying to learn more about how my brain works and how I can work more efficiently with it. On the one hand, many things aren’t new to me, e.g., it’s more efficient to stay on one task, multitasking doesn’t actually exist (he means multitasking as in “flipping between tasks,” not as in actually doing two things at once), etc. The difference here, though, is that Levitin goes into the science, using examples and highlighting individual studies to make his point. That makes the information more alive for me, and that’s when I start to see connections and start asking more questions.

Volleys of Insult

For example: Is this energy-draining task a reason for many of the insults firing back and forth online?

It’s a bit of a scary time in the world right now, I feel, because of the high-noon stand-off between the American and North Korean governments. Although I’m starting to see that humanity will always be scared of something and claim the world is coming to an end (i.e., Chicken Little), I have to admit, I’m a bit more nervous about this one.

With how often the President of the US has been in the news, I’ve noticed on Quora recently questions about conservative thought in the US, how liberal Europe is, questions about Canada’s prime minister, and comparisons among all three parties. Unfortunately, some of these discussions have often turned into Facebook-style exchanges, where very generalizing comments get catapulted around, and invariably someone says, “If you don’t like it here, then you can move.”

But It All Started Out So Innocently

What does this have to do with Levitin’s quote above? Usually, the first few answers on such contentious subjects are detailed and considerate, regardless of the person’s opinion. Someone took time to write them and to explain their point of view to anyone reading the string. Some respond in kind.

These are the answers that are most interesting, whether I’m reading a Republican’s or a Democrat’s answer. I may still disagree with the answers, but these kinds of answers are the closest I have to being in someone else’s shoes.

This Q&A process, when done with respect, lets you find commonalities between both parties (e.g., “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for my children”), and you suddenly realize you’re not that different after all, even if you disagree on the subject.

And Then Came the Slingshot

But why the mud-slinging? Because it’s easier? Mud-slinging involves insulting someone and cutting down their ego through generalizations and assumptions about the person. I’ve often wanted to engage in it myself, simply because someone’s ego grates me the wrong way (we’re past rubbing) and I want to shoot them down using the written word.

Instead, I start writing down a more detailed answer, and before I know it, 20 minutes have passed and I haven’t even posted my thoughts. Looking at the time I’ve already wasted, I delete everything and move on.

What Levitin is saying above is that it’s hard for us to switch between the general and the detailed, the forest and the trees.

Tornados and the Blues

Last night, my family and I went to the local blues festival to catch Steve Strongman, a singer-songwriter we’ve all come to really enjoy. The entire festival was cut short by a tornado warning. This usually only happens maybe once every year or two in our area, so it was scary. While I was waiting with the kids for my husband to get the car, I was frightened that lightning would hit any of the many trees we were near – the festival was in a park. The lightning was bright and thick and flashed down from the sky. (If you’re wondering if I’m overreacting, a student on the campus where I work got struck by lightning three years ago, because she stood under a tree.)

My husband drove up the street, and I was waiting at a four-way stop with the kids. The motorists all waited for me to cross and get the kids into the car. That’s when I saw the trees – that people are kind and compassionate – instead of the forest – the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

It’s Not All Hellish

It’s easy for us to read the headlines, whether we get them via social media or traditional media, and start to worry. And I will be the first to say that this old-fashioned pistol-drawing going on between these two governments does worry me. But it also makes it far too easy to have a negative view on the world.

Back to my original problem: I know hurtful things cause feelings of hurt, and I see the natural reaction in kids, namely, to hurt back. But what if we stepped down from the forest and into the trees and actually took 20 minutes once every week or two to explain our points of view instead of three minutes everyday slinging insults? I think we’d come a little closer to humanizing all the arguments out there and seeing that, yes, we actually have more in common with each other than we thought.

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Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

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Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

I’ve been reading self-help books on and off for years, and I wonder how they can promise that you can “have it all.” However, I also find these inspiring, and they often get me to think about my life in much different terms, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to balance my dreams with my life.

I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer right now. I came across this advice:

That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music. It wants you to take the risks involved, and to ignore your ego and the egos of others who tell you that an easier, safer, or more secure path is best for you. (page 152)

I love the book, but I find advice like this potentially misleading: he’s suggesting you don’t listen to your inner doubts and just take the plunge towards your dreams. For me, that would involve stopping all work and just focusing on writing fiction, which doesn’t bring in any money until you’ve developed somewhat of a following.

Tell that career decision to the bank that wants to take back your house.

Stay Safe

On the other hand, though, is the “stay safe” advice he talks of. There are varying degrees of this, at least in my experience. Here’s one side of the spectrum: An older relative of mine was once worried about the whole-grain, no-sugar diet my parents were raising me and my sister on (in the 80s and 90s, before it became trendy). The relative thought I’d have a hard time finding a husband by being on that diet. I eat sugar now, but I still prefer whole-grain baking and cooking to regular, and yet I somehow managed to find a husband AND have children with him. The relative meant well, but this is one version of the “safe” advice that Wayne Dyer is speaking of.

Here’s the other side: “You have a family to look after. Why on earth would you quit your job to become an artist?”

To which the person might respond, “Because I just know in my heart that it’s what I was meant to do.”

That last statement may be true – many of us push off what we’ve always felt to be our calling because others told us we’d never make a living with it, whatever it is.

But where are you in your life? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Kids to get through university? A weekly grocery bill to feed others besides just you?

Yes, right? So, what to do?

Think of the Possibilities

Don’t be afraid of blue skies dreaming. Dream, write it down, dream some more. Many of these self-help authors are good at putting you into the right frame of mind for that. You let your mind go free with all the things you dream of, all the things you want to do and to have, and start envisioning this new version of your life.

Now, this is where I would halt the process: Before you go any further, you need to look at your life as it is now and start setting things up to work towards your dream.

You want to become a master painter? Find an appropriate painting class, sign yourself up, and squeeze in 10 minutes a day to practice.

Want to work your way up in your company? Talk to managers and ask them how they got to where they are. Then start emulating what they do. (But make it your own; as the saying goes, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.”)

Want to change your career? Find more responsibilities in your current job that are applicable to that career change.

I don’t want to make it sound like these ideas are easy. You may have to shift your schedule around, or risk standing out from the crowd at work…and I wonder if these are the risks Wayne Dyer is really talking about but not explaining? There are legitimate concerns surrounding any major life-changing decision, but there are also fears that hold us back, like a thick woollen blanket wrapped around you: it’s warm and cozy but immobilizing.

The trick is to differentiate the two categories.

What About Bob? Baby Steps…

I don’t know your situation, of course, but I do believe that if you want to change something for the better, you will find a way to make it happen. For me, it was deciding to forego TV after the kids were in bed and spending that time on my novel.

Would I like to spend part of each writing fiction, at a time when my brain is more functional? Yes. But I chose to have a family and a mortgage. To just drop all my streams of income to “follow my dreams” would be hugely irresponsible.

But that doesn’t make following my dreams impossible.

Don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you aren’t living your dream life. Whatever life you are living, so long as it’s generally helpful to you and others, can probably teach you something that will benefit the life you are dreaming of. But figure out what those baby steps are that can get you moving in the right direction: the real risk, in the end, may be just prying open the door.

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You Get Inspired By Someone/thing and Want It: Consider Reconsidering

eric-didier-245518-reducedI’ve read over the years how the brain doesn’t fully mature until age 21 or 22. I also read a Quora response from someone (I’ve lost the reference, unfortunately) who said that he had reached his dream (house, car, wife, kids, dog) by age 39 and only then realized he was living the immature dreams of a teenager.

As teenagers, we try on different identities, experiment with things we shouldn’t be experimenting with, and, of course, swear to God that we know everything while ignoring the advice of usually well-meaning adults.

Many of us exit this phase with some level of maturity. But one trait mysteriously remains: we still believe that copying others means we’ll have the same effect on people as those others.

Huh?

For a writer, that’s a pretty clumsy sentence. Let me explain what I mean.

We look at a celebrity’s hairstyle, love it, and then want it for ourselves, even though we don’t have her face, cranium shape, or body type. We also don’t have a hairstylist backstage all day to fix it for us or two hours each morning to do it.

Many women love elegant shoes, which usually involves a high heel. They find a pair of these elegant shoes, put them on, and then forget to dress to match. Or worse, they don’t know how to walk to match and unfortunately look rather clumsy.

There’s also the stereotype of the middle-aged man who’s suddenly worried about his hairline and pot belly and makes weird attempts at turning back the biological clock.

What Do You Bring to the Table?

I think we’re going about this all the wrong way. Copying others and trying out different identities is what we did as teens. (Or, if you were like me, what you shied away from as a teen, too scared to take the risk of connecting with your deeper self, which, by the way, wasn’t the angsty, wish-you’d-get-kissed-by-a-vampire self.)

Several years ago, I came across this saying: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. When I heard it, I lost an invisible skin I didn’t know I had, the one I grew in my teen years but couldn’t shed after they passed, the one that quietly urged me to try and be like others, even well into adulthood. I consciously fought this skin, but it hung on like a hangnail: you pick at it, and it hurts a little, but true to its name, it hangs on.

Shedding that skin didn’t cause my personality to flip around. I didn’t turn into a party animal or suddenly take up smoking, but rather, I became much more comfortable with myself. In other words, I finally began to understand the context that made up Lori. This moment of  enlightenment came with an added bonus: I began to see other people in their contexts. (Well, as best as I could: what I know about even those closest to me is only a fraction of what makes up the whole person.)

Context: It’s Not Me, But It’s So You

Coming back to my initial thought, I think when we copy others, we’re missing part of the context that makes each of us an individual. Many writers know this, for example: there are, really, no new stories. What makes stories appear new, though, is the context the writer brings to it.

A skilled writer infuses the milestones of an age-old story with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. A story about a family torn apart by the matriarch’s death, in which the protagonist searches for the meaning of her own life, finds love, and then comes to a realization she didn’t expect, will be one story in the hands of the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a much different one in the hands of a woman who had spent 20 years in prison.

Now Ask the Right Questions

So what does this mean for the haircut we want or the house we so desire? Don’t ask yourself how you can look like that or how you can earn like crazy to have a house like that. Instead, look at the feeling your object of inspiration has awoken in you. Is the celebrity haircut new and fresh, and you’ve had the same one for five years? In the hands of the right stylist, the request “I’m tired of my old haircut, and I’d like something new that brightens my face more” will have the same effect as the celebrity haircut has on that celebrity.

Just the same way, a talented interior designer can probably give your home the same feel as a mansion for a fraction of what it would cost to move to a new, much larger home. (It’ll still cost you something, but it should be much less.)

Do be inspired by the things and people around you! But if you’re looking to have that same effect on others, you won’t achieve it by being like the objects of your inspiration; I believe you’ll achieve it by using the context that makes up you in a way that achieves that same feeling. It’s how celebrities get the attention they do, how writers create new stories from old, and how that charming little home down the street looks just as perfect as the mansions on the other side of the tracks.

It all comes down to you.

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A Different Way to Listen

sfbridgeI’m going to introduce you to a man you have probably never heard of. His name is Joseph Schaeffer. He’s a mediator and educator. If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember an incidence in British Columbia in the 1990s, where several Sikh veterans weren’t allowed to enter a Legion: all men entering a Legion are required to remove their hats, but a baptized Sikh cannot. Pritam Singh Jauhal was a WWII veteran, and he filed a complaint.

Schaeffer was called in to mediate. You can read this interesting account of the mediation process here.

Almost 20 years later, I got to meet him as part of a three-day workshop that was being offered in town, and the way he viewed conflict blew my mind. Given the atmosphere these days, I think it bears repeating.

Typical communication models show a sender and a recipient: one person sends a message and the other person receives it. According to Schaffer, the objective of this kind of model is “to understand each other.” This model focuses on opinions, generalizations, conclusions, assumptions, values, and beliefs (which he says are usually stated as facts). The desired outcome of these models is “agreement.”

In contrast, Schaeffer taught us “creative communication.” I don’t believe he chose that term because it sounded trendy; I believe it really reflects what he teaches: that we meet to create meaning. In his model, the objective is “to become familiar with each other.” The focus is on “Living Meaning,” and the outcome is “agreements to ‘act as if’ for a while…”

Do you see at least some of the differences? It’ll probably become clearer if I explain Living Meaning. He uses this term to describe how we create meaning as we go through life.

This is the example he gave us: book. Everyone can recognize what a book is. But what does a book mean to you? To one person, a book might mean a form a punishment, something that was used as a tool in spanking. To another person, it might mean cozy evenings on Mommy’s lap while she read. These are the Living Meanings of the word “book.”

So how do we learn someone else’s “Living Meaning”? By deep listening, according to Schaeffer. This is the tough part, because it involves keeping your own mouth shut and also turning off the invisible conversation partner in your mind. Schaeffer had us sit in partners to practice this: one talked for several minutes while the other listened. The listener, though, had to be mindful of that inner voice and simply listen.

We did often ask how questions fit into this model, e.g., if you wanted to ask a question for clarification or to show your interest, where did that fit in? I don’t know if we ever got an answer to that. However, when I am able to turn off that inner voice and just listen to the person opposite me, something deeper transpires. It wouldn’t fit Schaeffer’s model for me to say that I understand the person better, but I definitely feel a deeper connection in that moment.

In the end, Schaeffer believed that we can never say that we “know” someone, because we will never have access to all their life experiences. But by focused, deep listening, and by aiming to “find places of meaning we both feel good about,” I do find that I have a much easier time getting along with people. The only difficulty is trying to remember to put this into practice: it’s not easy, but it does work for me when I do use it.

So, that’s Joseph Schaeffer and creative communication. The next time you’re faced with someone whose opinions differ from yours, consider just listening. Of course, if you feel unsafe, then leave the situation quickly. But if you’re talking to someone or listening to a presentation and you disagree with them, don’t bud in with your arguments; give them 100% of your attention and learn what they’re trying to share with you. You may not change your mind, but you’ll likely come away with a stronger connection to them, and I think humanity could use a few of those right now.

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Applying to University? Here are My 9 Regrets About My Studies

alte-nationalgalerie-berlin-1In Ontario, young people are supposed to know what to do with their lives by the time they’re 17 so they can start applying to post-secondary education. For me, it was 18 (we had grade 13 back then), and the best I could do was apply for Psychology: it was a flexible degree. In all honesty, though, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I suspect the same is true for many teens today.

Here’s my advice to high school students applying to university*: Use it as a time to explore and not as a time to plan your life. If you don’t mind reading a lament from an “old” person who graduated from university almost twenty years ago, read my list of 9 regrets, and please do your best not to repeat my mistakes.

I regret

  • Avoiding science courses because they were “too much work.” (What? You want me to take a lab with its own exam? Please.) Those courses would have better prepared me for the world of pseudo-factual health information so pervasive nowadays. But I didn’t know that in 1996.
  • Not learning Latin. I know: who cares about a dead language? Well, all the living languages tied to it, including German and English (the two I speak) and French and Spanish (two I learned to a certain degree) and Romanian (one I wish I could at least read). And Latin is all over monuments in Europe (where I would spend three years over the next eight or so). Given my love of languages, a few Latin courses would have been really helpful.
  • Thinking philosophy was also pointless. Actually, it would have helped me create stronger arguments, especially ones based on logic when double-blind studies aren’t available (which happens more often than we’d like to think).
  • Viewing challenges as excuses to be proud of my laziness and not as opportunities to contribute to the world sooner because I had grown that much faster.
  • Believing that university work had to take up my entire life. Had I been more disciplined with my time management, I’m certain I would have accomplished more, because I would have focused more and burned out less. This includes spending time with friends, setting aside time for myself, and taking breaks throughout the day.
  • Looking for studying shortcuts. The only shortcut is focused attention to defined tasks that you can complete in a way that suits how you take in information. E.g., if you’re a tactile learner, turn your reading into something tactile as soon as possible; don’t just stare at your book.
  • Skipping classes if the prof seemed to teach out of the textbook. I was missing an automatic opportunity to review the material in a different way. But hey, at least I felt smart believing I didn’t need to go to class.
  • Fearing marks, when in fact they were a by-product of my effort. Does the professor mark too hard? Rise to the challenge and learn what her game is; don’t blame her for being a tough prof.
  • Blaming the professor for my lack of interest. Professors are not entertainers, they’re researchers. If you have a prof who drones on like a bad 1950s sci-fi robot, take notes during class, review your notes while the prof’s droning, or imagine how you could make that information more interesting. You’ll have to deal with people of all sorts in the real world; learn how to do that now.

University completely changed my life; I just wish I’d opened the doors wider. Good luck with your applications, and I hope you get into the program you want! Just remember to keep exploring as much as your program allows you to: this opportunity may never come again.

(*I think it’s appropriate to add a disclaimer here: I work part-time as an admin assistant at a university. The impetus for this post isn’t that, though. Not directly, anyway. When I have my lunch in the building café, I sometimes hear students complain about their studies, and it’s frustrating to see myself 15+ years ago sitting right next to me, knowing what I know now.)

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Don’t Be Afraid to Dig Deep

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Photo from Unsplash

Have you ever dived into the deep end of a pool, tried to touch the bottom, and then come up, feeling immensely satisfied that you were just 10 feet below the surface of the water? Once above water again, you were likely taking bigger breaths to catch up to the air you had to hold in down below. The sun then seemed a little brighter, the chlorine smelled a little stronger, and you felt a little more relaxed.

As you forced your body down to the pool’s floor, you could feel the water hugging you more the deeper you went. Maybe your ears felt the pressure, too. It’s almost cozy at the bottom, except for the trivial fact of no air. Some people practice this over and over again, going deeper and holding their breath longer. Others – like me – just did it for fun as a kid.

Yet when other areas of our life ask us to “go deeper,” we resist. Instead of reading an unread book off our own bookshelf, we go and buy another one. Instead of taking 15 minutes to prep a meal for ourselves that we can really enjoy for 30 minutes, we grab a sandwich or maybe even a protein bar so we can rush to the next task. Instead of networking through our current contacts, we’re spending loads of time cold-calling people we have no connection with.

The ultimate example for me was the first draft of my novel: at 92,000 words, I had so many balls in the air I couldn’t settle on a suitable ending that wrapped everything up. (The big hint? I was on ending #7 and still wasn’t happy.) It wasn’t until someone told me to start over that I could finally dig deeper into the main character, and the experience has been that much more satisfying.

The funny thing is, by going deeper, we become the eye of the hurricane that whirls around our lives instead of the wind that circles the eye. It feels like that often-used Hollywood shot of the protagonist standing still and staring off into the distance while the cameras circle around her.

If you have kids, you’ll also see this avoidance of depth every day: the moment screen time is turned off, the kids are bored. And oh what a horrible day it’ll be because they’re bored! The most horrible day ever! So horrible that – oh, look, there’s some Lego.

Back in September, I think, I went to my first comedy improv workshop in six years. I was rusty as hell, but the class was exactly on this topic: using what’s already there. The workshop leader had all six of us stand in a circle, and one person at a time added a sentence to the story. Of course, the story went wild fast, even though the instructor had drawn our attention early on to the bread crumbs we could already use. In another exercise, we redid the same scene over and over to try to work with its core. With improv, that can kill the energy of the scene, but it drove home the need to stop trying to find another new idea.

It’s not that new ideas are bad! We need them. But once we have an idea, and it’s a good one, we should work with it. Make the idea the eye of the hurricane, not part of the wind.

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Passion vs. Real Life

Hands of person holding road mapThere’s nothing more enjoyable about writing than finding out something new about yourself as you’re writing. In this case, I’m starting to question the validity behind the “follow your passion” philosophy of life.

I enjoy reading Wayne Dyer, Cheryl Richardson, Jack Canfield, and a host of other inspirational authors. The general message that I hear is that success comes by setting your goals and (in most cases) working hard to achieve them. There’s a good dose of “you can do anything you set your mind to” in there. Throw God (or whatever you believe in) into the mix as your backup, your support, and the being/energy that will help you through, and you’ll be successful.

I do believe there’s truth in that. Human history is full of people who’ve lived by those principles and achieved greatness.

Then there’s Cal Newport, who believes that the passion argument is flawed and even misleading. Newport argues that you should “start by getting good at something valuable; the passion will follow” and that the belief of following your passion “can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.” His most recent book, according to his website, is called “So Good, They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Work You Love.”

I also believe there’s some truth in that. Human history is also full of people who show pride in their everyday work, at least based on my impression of the last two million years. When I speak to some of those people (obviously those alive – I have no special gifts), I hear their pride constantly as they talk about their jobs. My grandmother, for example, used to work in a luxury hotel in Austria in the 50s, and she frequently told me about her skill at egg-boiling: she had to remember how long each guest wanted their eggs boiled, and I don’t believe she had an egg timer. She was truly proud of that fifty years later.

Some in the passion camp argue that I should look to my childhood for what my true passions are, or at least, were. For me, I loved creating: writing, crafting, drawing, and occasional family-only performances were all on the plate. If I had followed my passion 100% as some of these inspirational speakers say I should, I’d be broke. Why? Because back then I believed in only one road to success in the arts: audition->work for cheap/get rejected->repeat. And I sucked at it. A mix of low self-confidence (“I’m not going to make it, so why try?”) and dealing poorly with rejection (“See? They didn’t like me, anyways.”) guaranteed that I got nowhere professionally really quickly. I needed to find something I believed I was good at.

In those days, my mom was a secretary and my dad ran the family business with my grandfather and uncle. At home, mom taught me how to answer the phone with a smile (no matter how stupid you felt), type with ten fingers, and use a word processor, including advanced functions like macros and merges. Around roughly the same time, I worked summers at the family business filing work orders from the service department. I still talk about my filing system from back then.

In my adult life, I kept getting administrative jobs. For a while, I thought this was some kind of woman thing, based on the lack of male administrative assistants. Am I truly reaching my full potential? Do I not have the ovaries to reach higher? (I’d use the usual expression, but the obvious answer would be no.) All it took to answer those questions was a reflection back on my previous jobs. I frequently stepped in to new systems or very inefficient ones. In order to turn them around, though, I had to communicate with my boss and other team members clearly. Sometimes I had to write a proposal, maybe give a small presentation. I learned to focus less on me and more on the customer (crucial in almost any job). I also eventually learned how to write effective copy. Over time, I grew to believe that I’m damn good at those skills (and have the performance evaluations to prove it).

What I could not foresee as a child was how the role of secretary/administrative assistant would grow to encompass a slew of new responsibilities, including copious amounts of writing. The thing about childhood dreams is that you don’t understand the entire scope of adult life. A “writer” to my younger self was Robert Munsch, or Jean Little, or Carolyn Keene (before I knew she didn’t exist), or even Lois Lane (even though I knew she didn’t exist). It didn’t occur to me that writers can write marketing copy, reports, essays, or grants. In addition, the Internet was nowhere to be seen back then. Basically, if I’d “followed my dream,” I may have actually passed up amazing opportunities along the road that brought me to where I am now.

Maybe the best advice, then, is to follow what you love to do, but leave the how open for discussion.