Darth Vader: Management Guru?

I have long toyed with the idea of writing a business book that focused on the management strategies of Darth Vader.  I mean seriously, though “more machine than man now, twisted and evil,” Vader was the quintessential executive.  Consider this:

  • He had a well-documented low tolerance for failure—this pursuit of success gained in galactic infamy in the Clone Wars, put him in the suit we all know and love, and made him the most feared being in the galaxy.  Not bad for a little kid from the desert
  • He honored the chain of command—there was never a question of who ultimately was in charge and whose vision was being implemented.  No one in the Empire questioned Vader’s true motivations
  • He would not ask more of his staff than he was willing to do himself—they’re attacking my Death Star?  Ready my ship…
  • Vader recognized the limitations of his organization and was willing to outsource—when conventional methods failed to produce results (i.e. the Millennium Falcon), Vader resorted to bounty hunters
  • He encouraged and rewarded creativity in pursuit of a goal—Find the Millennium Falcon.  “Use any means at your disposal.  No disintegrations.”
  • He was a fierce negotiator—“I have altered the deal.  Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

But one quote seems to typify his approach more than any other: in The Empire Strikes Back, when the Millennium Falcon disappears into an asteroid field and his admiral cautions against pursuit, Vader responds with “Asteroids do not concern me, Admiral.  I want that ship, not excuses.”  In short, get it done.

Last November, I participated in and won National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org).  NaNoWriMo is a month-long pursuit of a singular that eludes many in their lifetime—write a novel.  The goal is to get 50,000 words on the page in 30 days.  No one says it will be good (it won’t) or that it will be marketable (it shouldn’t be), but it is one of those things you can look back on, see and touch and know that you achieved.  It is a global phenomenon and thousands of people reach that one goal every November.  For those that reach the 50,000 word goal, they are called winners.

Everything comes at you in those 30 days and you must juggle your day to day responsibilities with the needs and wants of your family and friends and sleep and TV and Thanksgiving—all while maintaining the singular pursuit of 1667 words on the page every day.   In short, for those 30 days, you are in an asteroid field.

As impractical as his approach may be, Vader has a point:  in pursuit of a singular goal, the goal itself must trump the obstacles that attempt to thwart you.  Throughout our lives as writers, asteroids will always appear.  There is always something that captures our attention or commands our focus.  Something that must be done or attended to or demands a response. In my last post, I spoke about battling the Day Job Dragon and how the beast itself is a necessary evil.  But that monster, the Day Job, is merely a means to an end and we can never take our eye off the true goal.

I think it’s the goal itself and the commitment to it that is really the focus here.  Whether your goal is to finish that novel in 30 days or get 1000 Twitter followers or sell 1M copies of your new book, stay committed to the goal.  You’ve already won.  Think about it.  Most people do not have the wherewithal to write the book at all.  They cannot fathom undertaking something so vast and large, much less having the guts to put it out in front of people to be judged.  You’re ahead of the game already.  Capitalize on that.  The same drive that put you in that chair, at that desk, pounding on that keyboard or scribbling on notepads until your hands bled day in and day out to produce a story worth telling is the same drive that will accept nothing less than your definition of success.

Don’t let something or someone get in the way or deter you or derail you.   You got a bad review?  Suck it up and move on.  Poor sales?  Research and pursue alternate marketing methods or different channels.   Can’t find an agent?  Publish it yourself.  In the end, these are just asteroids.  And you know how we feel about those, right?

The Magnificent Art of Balance or Slaying the Day Job Dragon

Hi, my name is Chris and I’m an addict.  See, I have this horrible addiction to food and shelter, heat and light.  It’s made me do things I’m not proud of, this addiction.  It’s turned me into someone I never thought I’d be:  a person with…a Day Job.

Writers are already schizophrenic; we have to listen to the voices in our heads and give them names, personalities, backstory.  We make the real out of the unreal and to give our characters voice and make them live, we have to become them.  Let them inhabit us until we can feel these creations moving beneath our skin.  Until their words come bursting from our mouths.  That’s what writers do, who we really are, in the privacy of our offices or writing nooks or leather chairs at Starbucks.  Add to that a persona that actually has to be somewhere on time and contribute or add value.  Serve customers.  Choose benefits.

I give name to this beast, this horrid responsibility: I dub thee Day Job Dragon!

Like you, I’d rather spend my days crafting adventures from the four corners of the globe, pulling alternate realities from the tenuous grip of time or building sweeping epics of geo-political, swashbuckling, sci-fi, romanticism on worlds that do not exist.  And like an icy shadow blocking out the sun, the behemoth that is my Day Job rises to burn my flights of fantasy in an inferno of emails, client calls and TPS reports.

It is a struggle, my duel with the Dragon.  Every page or post I write comes at a cost of time that could be devoted to some other aspect of my life.  There is no balance.  I live the traditionally frenetic American life that is trying to cram in my career aspirations, spend some time with my kids, spend some better time with my wife, put some words on the page, and find the time to take a shower.  Plus Jon Stewart is horribly addictive…so is Law & Order.  CSI.  The Real Housewives…you get my drift.

For a long time, I really bought into the idea that there had to be balance in my life and that I was giving into things that did not matter by feeding the Dragon. I’ve invested enough time and money on books, programs, planners, and apps to fund the shuttle program for a few more years.  I have stuff from before Franklin met Covey, before there were 7 Habits—back when it was DayRunners and DayTimers. I even have a book about procrastinating that I never found the time to read.  All of this is designed to help me prioritize my life so I can accomplish more.  But I already accomplish a lot. So then the systems started telling me I was accomplishing the wrong stuff…

This is crap. There is no right or wrong stuff.  There is simply our stuff—the hodge-podge collection of experiences and ideas and opportunities and responsibilities that makes us who are.  Just like our families and Honey-Do lists and Lifetime Saturdays (yes, even I have had them), the Day Job is a necessary monster that must haunt our lives.  In fact, it is the Day Job Dragon that lets me write at all.

For all my griping, Creative Me needs the Day Job Dragon. Creative Me loves Day Job Me.  Day Job Me can afford my shiny new Macbook and that grande vanilla cappuccino at Starbucks.  Day Job Me pays bills, buys ink and gas and domain names, can spend his money frivolously on writing classes and books, retreats, and printing.  Creative Me is Kato Kaelin–the rumpled college kid sleeping on Day Job Me’s parental couch still wearing yesterday’s sweats.

Not that Creative Me doesn’t add value.  He absolutely does.  He inspires Day Job Me to get up each and every day to battle that Dragon just so the fairytale land can exist at all.  He is the reason Day Job Me has a job.  The analogy works:  just as parents sacrifice to send their children to schools where they turn around and drink and party and sometimes study, all so they might pursue endeavors that financially support the pursuit of lofty dreams, the two sides of every writer—the creator and manager, the right and left sides of our brains—must exist.

There is no slaying the Day Job Dragon.  There can’t be.  In the best case scenario, the one that we dream about, our creative works bring enough financial stability that we switch day jobs.  In that fantastical, but wholly plausible world, our creative endeavors become our day job.  The day job doesn’t disappear; the nature of the beast simply changes.  So instead of trying to slay the Day Job Dragon, I say let’s ride it!

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

So I was playing the rough and tumble game of badminton with my 9-year-old daughter on the Fourth of July. I go to make a fantastic save, like ESPN highlight reel save (yes, I’m trying to crush my daughter…this is not a commentary on my parenting). Anyway, I’m leaping in full gazelle fashion across the backyard and my foot comes down in a mole hole. Foot stops. I do not. I hear three disconcerting snaps and I go down.

Fractured ankle. At least 3 torn ligaments. Vicodin (yay!).

And for the last 4 weeks, I’ve been stuck in this stupid but oh-so-sexy boot.

And I’ve had to endure plenty of commentary. I’m enduring ridicule from my wife, getting clowned by my kids. Even my dog is giving me heavy sighs, waiting at the top of the stairs for me to hobble my slow ass down the steps to let him out. My mother and grandmother have both told me I’m too old for badminton. First, it’s freaking badminton! Second, I was playing against a 9-year-old. Badminton is not a high impact sport, especially not against elementary school kids. But I digress. And it’s not the point.

The point is what happened after that.

So while I’m stuck in the boot, high on painkillers, I have to stop. The pain made me stop. And when you have to stop, while the world is running and you’re not, you have to deal with yourself.

For me, that means dealing with my fears.

I think I have the worst kind of fear: paralyzing fear. See, I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. I’ve been thinking of stories since I was 6 years old, sitting terrified on my father’s lap, peeking through my fingers at John Hurt’s chest exploding in Alien. Some of them have been horrible diatribes, poor rehashes of Star Wars or Transformers. Others have been honestly impressive. But incomplete. I’ve been afraid to complete anything for fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish it, or that it wouldn’t be good enough. Or that it wouldn’t be perfect. That it wouldn’t measure up to the image in my head.

So those ideas sat in drawers, in closets, in the corners of my mind, collecting dust and letting age slowly eat it their edges. They were fragments, these ideas, lost souls that never saw their lives lived—for good or bad—completely on the page.

I’ve finished exactly ONE book-length project in my 38 years. While impressive, it’s taken me 7 years of touch and go, half-hearted revisions, spirited drafts and poor effort. This one idea has dominated my creative psyche for far too long because I was afraid to let it go. Afraid it wouldn’t be good enough. Afraid it wouldn’t measure up to what I thought it was in my head.

Here’s the thing about writing: though it is a solitary endeavor, a completely internal process, it’s meant for everyone but the writer. To be a writer, you have to give it away. You have to turn it over to masses or that masterpiece you hold so dear is little more than a pile of paper. Collecting dust. A black-and-white memoir of what might have been.

I hate being hurt. But more than pain, I hate being unable to do stuff. Incapacitated. Fear is as incapacitating as pain. It saps your energy and your impetus. It constrains your capabilities and makes you much less than the person you truly are. Fear is worse than pain: you have every reason to believe you will heal and the pain will go away. Fear has no healing cycle.

3 weeks after I hurt my ankle—about one week ago—I mustered up the courage to mow the lawn. I hadn’t been back in the yard since the Fourth and I was terrified—literally—that I would step back in that damn hole and get hurt again. But my lawn looked like Fern Gully. My dog kept getting lost in the tall grass. I decided to take the plunge, kicked the boot and tried walking in regular shoes for the first time in damn near a month.

And I did step in that mole hole. Four times. And it hurt. A lot. But it got done and my yard is better for it.

I released that book into ether today. Sure, I’m scared and any negative reviews are going to hurt. A lot. But it’s done and I believe I’m a whole lot better for it.