by Lillian Csernica on May 23, 2013
Day 23: Things you’ve learned that school won’t teach you
You make your own luck.
How do you get to be in the right place at the right time? By working hard, keeping up with the latest news on your chosen field, and cultivating your contacts. That way, when opportunity knocks, you can open that door. There is a certain amount of genuine luck involved in success. You are the one who determines just how big a percentage of that luck comes your way. John Grisham is a good example of this. When he wrote his first novel, he used his own money to get several copies published. He then gave those books to all the people he knew who were involved in the legal profession. This was some time ago, before all the social media we have now to help us in our pursuit of shameless self-promotion. Grisham generated enough interest in his book to get a deal from a major publishing house. High on my list of favorite quotations is, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” Grisham knew his target market and did the leg work to create the buzz he needed to launch his professional writing career. If you do the work, you will find out where the right place is and you will know the right time to be there.
Never let people know just how intelligent you really are.
Does this seem sneaky, underhanded, self-defeating? It’s not. Always keep something in reserve. Let’s say your boss needs somebody to take over a certain project you’ve had your eye on. That’s when you step forward a reveal your knowledge and/or experience with something that will make a significant contribution to that project. If you haven’t gone around shooting your mouth off about this particular advantage, it remains an advantage, a secret weapon, a magic wand. In one of her etiquette books Miss Manners gives the example of having a PhD. Sure, you could go around announcing it, but people will be much more impressed when they find out from someone else. There are times when it can be very useful to be underestimated, especially by the opposition.
Learn how to listen. People will tell you so much, more than they realize.
Oh sure, in school they told us over and over again to hush up and pay attention. When I was on the Speech and Debate Team in college, I acquired a much more useful ability. I learned to listen to what people were not saying. It’s tricky, the auditory version of “reading between the lines.” Sometimes people are trying to be subtle. Sometimes they’re avoiding a painful subject. Sometimes they’re hiding information they don’t want you to know. Misdirection is an art mastered not just by stage magicians. I’ve met quite a few people who are very good at making sure you only hear what they want you to hear. On the other hand, sometimes people don’t realize what they’re really telling you. Remember that line from Hamlet? “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The Queen thought Baptista went too far, revealing her true opinion by the way she kept denying it.
There’s another aspect to the art of listening. If you learn to listen well, people will open up to you and tell you all sorts of things. Most people just want to be heard. They want some kind of validation for their opinion, their outrage, their anxiety, their pain. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism states “Everyone suffers.” That being so, people need to talk about it. Psychotherapy is known as “the talking cure.” I’m not saying you have to sit there and be somebody’s cheap therapist (although that does happen in friendships from time to time). It’s a great kindness to truly listen to someone and let that person know he or she has been heard. When you’re a writer, you know that everyone has a story, probably several. I’m always happy to listen to an expert talk, no matter what the field of expertise. I’m sure to learn something anecdotal, a one-of-a-kind story no Web search could turn up.
Do it now. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Speaking as someone who died in a car accident and was given a second chance, I’m here to tell you this is the absolute truth.
Pain itself won’t kill you, but envy and hatred are lethal.
If you want to know about the power of physical pain to clear the mind and sharpen the priorities, I highly recommend The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Yes, pain is terrible. Yes, it drains your strength and leaches all the color out of life. Pain can be dealt with. I won’t say cured, because I know people with fibromyalgia who live with chronic pain. Envy and hatred are corrosive to the soul. They will waste your time, ruin your life, cripple your body, and turn you into a nasty, vindictive, bitter person. Envy is a stupid self-defeating emotion because, as I mentioned above, everybody suffers. Maybe we don’t see their suffering, but it’s there somewhere sooner or later. Buddhism also says “Attachment leads to suffering.” From what I’ve seen in life, hatred is born of thwarted attachment. Give it up. Let it go. Free the attachment. Life’s too short to be dragging around the rotting corpse of resentment.
Know the limits of your own strength.
I’m old enough to remember when Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Why is this important? It’s the key to making sure we don’t set ourselves up for failure. When I’m working at a steady pace on a writing project, I know I can produce five pages or fifteen hundred words in ninety minutes. Some days I do get that burst of inspiration or enthusiasm that helps me go farther. Some days it’s all I can do to crank out the fifteen hundred. Every day I aim for the fifteen hundred, not three thousand or five thousand. (It depends on the project, of course, to say nothing of deadlines!) If I push too hard on the wrong day, I could end up hating what I’ve written or giving myself a headache or taking a wrong turn in the story because of mental fatigue. This is not quality writing time, because I’ve hurt myself and I may have hurt my story. So I know my limitations and I work within them.
Practice gratitude. People appreciate being appreciated.
Let me share with you a recent example of something small and goofy that brought a surprising amount of happiness to a lot of people. May 1st is May Day. In many parts of the world May Day is celebrated by friends making baskets of fresh flowers and other small treats and leaving them on people’s doorsteps anonymously. Here in America I haven’t seen or heard much of May Day celebrations along that line since I was in elementary school. (Yes, I know it’s Beltane for the pagan folks.) I was in the Dollar Tree during the last week of April. These silly plush toy flowers as long as my arm had cute little smiley faces circled by two-tone petals in pink and orange, blue and yellow, purple and red. I bought three.
The first flower my son John gave to the lady at McDonald’s who gives him extra treats now and then. She spent twenty years working as a special needs aide, and she thinks of John as her adopted nephew. The second flower I gave to my therapist. The third flower John and I gave to his homeroom teacher. All three ladies reacted with surprise and delight, telling us stories of how they thought May Day had been forgotten, what they did to celebrate it when they were school age, and how happy they were to see the custom still continued. Those flowers are artificial, true, but I chose them for that very reason. They will remain a lasting reminder of the happiness and nostalgia of May Day. John’s teacher uses hers in the classroom as a pointer during lessons!
Such little things, those flowers. Each cost me one dollar. The gift of appreciation, of gratitude, came back to me and John multiplied again and again. You never know how far such a gift will be carried, and how much good it will do along the way.