Three months have passed since I completed my first book, Agents of Change, and I am now in that murky phase… caught somewhere in the midst of having pride in the completion of the initial goal, of working to further build upon that accomplishment in the present, and of itching to turn my attention to what comes next. Like so many aspects of my life, I started this journey with a vague goal (publish a book) and with plenty of passion, but without a plan for how to get there or for what to do once I’m done. Whether it be my writing, my career, or my other extracurriculars that come and go, I tend to just start running and then count on serendipity to insure that my talents, focus, and energy are pointed in the right direction. And honestly… it has generally worked. I have never really needed to worry about “turning the page”, because the pages have largely turned themselves. I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a chemical engineer, but that is where my path led me so I followed. I went to a free lunch in college with the Chief Technology Officer at Procter & Gamble, and ended up embarking on a seventeen year career. And later I started writing blog posts on the topics that filled my mind, and ultimately my first book was born. Again, this has not been a part of some sort of master plan, but more of a happy run through the woods where I just kept racing knowing that a clear path would always emerge in front of me. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not complaining. It has been a great run and I am thankful for where these roads have taken me. But as I now try to decide when and how to “close the book” on this current phase, suddenly the paths are all blocked with fog. So as I am becoming anxious to start the next chapter, I am struggling with how to proceed as my once reliable serendipity has suddenly chosen to sleep.
I am going to focus the rest of this post on my writing, but it clearly applies to my other creative and professional endeavors as well. It sounds simple to say, but the main things I need to sort out are the purpose, the success criteria, the plan, and the deadline. It is amazing how often that these basic concepts rise to the forefront in the success of any aspect of life and work… and also how often they are overlooked. What is your mission? How do you know if your mission is successful? What is the plan to succeed? When must your mission be completed? I will tell you that when life is flowing smoothly in the waves of serendipity, you can sometimes get by without them… but for those times when stuck in a holding pattern or in “writer’s block”, it is critical to get back to these basics.
1) Purpose… What is my goal, my intention in writing? Who is my audience? Am I writing to teach, to inform, or to entertain? Importantly, what is more critical at this phase of life… The art or the acclaim? With my first book, I was clear on the message I wanted others to receive… I wanted to help amazing, but stifled individuals and organizations to unleash their inner superheroes and to become much needed change agents in the world. I also wanted to show my aspiring author of a daughter that if her slow, old dad could publish a book then so could she. But, as is a common theme in my life, I wasn’t clear what I wanted to get out of it personally, which is making it challenging to know where to go next. Like one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting, if I asked myself the simple question “What Do I Want to Do?” I couldn’t answer it.
2) Success Criteria… Is the creative act of publishing a book enough? Do I have a sales goal? Am I measured by 5-star ratings and Likes? Do I want to be recognized externally as an expert in my craft? Is this a springboard to a greater investment in a writing career or a hobby and creative outlet? Again, with Agents of Change, holding a tangible, published book in my hand was the immediate goal and then I decided to just “see what happened”. It has certainly been exciting and I have been honored by the response… But I still have a nagging sense that I should be doing more. I’ve sold more than I thought I would but not as many as I hoped. I have had good reviews but haven’t made the time to push for more professional credentialing. I have fed a desire to keep promoting the book, but without a clear goal I have not been able to prioritize the time or energy against doing so. Without knowing what success looks like on this first book, it is impossible for me to think about how to start something new.
3) Deadline and Plan… Even if I were to establish a clear success criteria, I need to set a plan to achieve it and a deadline of when to move forward- if for no other reason than to avoid the risk of getting caught up in a whirlpool of waiting. For example, if my goal were to sell a million books (which, while not my actual goal, would be nice) but my best case scenario fell several zeroes short of that, then I need to have a plan and a deadline to free myself from a goal that is no longer relevant or achievable. How long is “long enough” to wait? When do I want to commit to starting something new? Is there a time when I start phasing one project down and another up? With this first book, not only did I have no goal, but I set no deadlines. I want to promote my book more, get more sales, and maybe get some external recognition… But I haven’t prioritized it or given myself a timeline. Therefore my sense of urgency to make progress, to wrap things up, and to start something new is all muted. I know that I want to start writing the next chapter, but how can invest in the future when I don’t know what I have left to accomplish in the present?
And so again, at a time where I should be feeling proud of the accomplishment, enjoying the moment, and excited by the endless possibilities for the future, I instead feel trapped in the waiting place and smothered in stuckness. I wish there were a way that I could just ride the coattails of this “win” for awhile, and just let whatever happens, happen. Life would be much easier, in general, if I were wired that way. But the tension is strong to make the most out of this first book, but also to get started on the next one. And I think this sense of urgency is heightened right now as I approach my 40th birthday, as I have recently witnessed too many lives cut short by illness and tragedy, and as the calling to make the most of my God-given gifts and talents gets louder and stronger. So what do I do now?
In lieu of building a time machine, I am giving myself a deadline. My 40th birthday is on December 20th, so on that date my priority will shift to writing the next chapter. That doesn’t mean that I won’t start working on it now, nor that I will ignore my current book subsequent to that date, but that I am giving myself the license to focus on the present for the next four months and to force the discipline to not fully invest in the future until that date will pass. In the interim… any effort I put toward the next chapter will be in sorting out the purpose of what it should be.
- I am dabbling before I decide. I am sketching out some fiction and short stories, I have a potential new non-fiction topic mapped out, and I have even start writing some poetry. And of course, I could even just continue down the road of innovation and superheroes that I have been on. Regardless, I plan to play and to prototype to sort out where my passion resides.
- Will it be a sequel, a spinoff, or a fresh start? There is more to the story that I started with Agents of Change that I could continue to tell. Or maybe I could stay in the same “industry”, but zero in on a particular theme or topic. Or maybe I could jump ship altogether and take a whole new spin in a new genre. I know that I want to write, but I need to sort out what I want to write.
- Is this still a Side Bet or am I All In? To be clear, there is a zero percent chance that I stop working a day job and start writing full time. Maybe someday… but not now. That said, to this point I have written when time allowed and have not necessarily mandated daily time against this passion. If “professional author” is something that I am serious about then I need to invest bigger… and if it is purely a creative outlet then I need to set expectations accordingly. I just need to be decisive and deliberate about what it should be.
So as I close this post, I am still hungry to start the next chapter but not yet ready to close the book on my first attempt. Setting this 40th birthday deadline is actually quite freeing as I give myself some time to sort out this, and other, goal(s), while committing to focus on the present in the meantime. Regardless, I need to face and embrace the fact that serendipity is sleeping and that I must now chart my own path and decide where I want to invest my time, fuel my passion, and maximize my impact…
And so it begins.