The question of whether one should self-publish or publish traditionally is a misnomer because what does it mean to “publish traditionally” and what does it mean to “self-publish,” given that the two have been in flux for over a decade? Traditional publishing is no longer traditional, given how people consume content, and individuals who pursue self-publishing are simply small business owners that leverage available platforms and services and outsource everything else.
So the question is: what problem set do you want to acquire? And more specifically, where do you want to sit in the process and can you bankroll it? Here are two scenarios for a debut author.
Problem Set One: Traditional Publishing
The assumption with traditional publishing is that you will write a draft of a manuscript (or a synopsis of one), pitch it to an agent, and then that agent will pitch you to a publisher who will then edit, transcode, print, warehouse, distribute, market, publicize, and sell your book and its many derivatives.
- In this scenario, the common misnomer is that you will release your perch (a draft of your manuscript) into the hands of an agent/publisher and, eureka, a best-selling, award-winning book will pop out at the other end. This is not the case.
- Just because a publisher has some of the above capabilities and hopefully the established contacts, that does not mean they will give all of them to you, do all of them for you, or do any of them well. Even if they offer all of these perks, lets safely assume that every company has pockets of talent, and this talent makes up for 20% of its people. The other 80% varies and can possibly be as harmful to you as it can be helpful.
- Okay, so what would compel a publisher to give a debut author the crème de la crème service? And even if they get that white-glove service, consumer behavior is unpredictable and complicated, and publishers are not typically hailed for their marketing, advertising, and publicity savvy. This means that if you already are a successful media or industry personality, have a strong social following (a.k.a. are an “influencer”), or have a credential or award that establishes you as a toted expert in a particular field and you intend to write about that field, then you have priority seating in the nebulous, traditional “old guard” world. How do you break through these nepotistic barriers, and do you want to? What would be the motivation to pursue a traditional publisher as a debut novelist without all the proverbial clout/privilege? The motivation would be to gain recognition, and that becomes a very personalized process that depends on individual strengths and weaknesses. We do not live in a society where one’s true-life experience is adequately portrayed through a résumé (like that defining moment when you sat by your dying father’s bedside for a month and felt his hand go limp as you observed his final breath). It should be, but it is not.
Problem Set Two: Self-Publishing
As a self-publisher, or what some people call “artisanal” or “indie” publisher, you own the entire process, as opposed to taking a seat within it. You bypass the pitch to an agent and publisher, and then you cherry-pick who you want to work with to develop and sell your product. This includes everything from editing to design to marketing, publicity and so on.
- In this scenario, the common self-publishing misnomer is that once you write your manuscript, all you have to do is plop it somewhere and ta-da, you will have a best-selling, award-winning book. This is not the case. The reality is you’re building a business that will serve as platform for the remainder of your writing career.
- If you don’t have the product development network, you’ll have to build one, and if you don’t know the product development process, you’ll have to learn as you go.
- While consumers don’t appear to care too much about whether a writer is traditionally or self-published, indicated by the fact indie ebook sales constitute for roughly 30-40% of market share in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand*, there is a misperception that self-publishing is what a writer should do after they first try to get a traditional publishing deal, or that it’s what you do when you have failed as a writer. This narrative shouldn’t surprise anyone since, when it registers, self-publishing works against the bread and butter of the traditional publisher, not in favor of it. So yes, it can be a challenging misconception and sure, self-publishing is not for everyone, but when you consider who gets priority within a publisher’s Rolodex, the question becomes what is your motivation? How neatly do you fit the traditional mold? (Are you already a highly accomplished and affluent person with lots of social media followers?)
Notice how neither of these two scenarios has much to do with the quality of the writing or the quality of a person as a writer. Realistically, the people who care about these types of articles are either writers who are trying to break into the business or individuals who are concerned they may be losing validity within it.
A Framework For Decision-Making
So again, the question is, which problem set do you want to inherit? To figure that out you have to ask:
- What are your goals and your motivations?
- What do traditional publishers actually look for and how well do you map to it?
- What other skills can you bring to the table?
- What are your financial parameters? (I didn’t mention this earlier, but the royalties for a self-published author are typically far better than for a traditionally published author, but the startup costs are much higher for an indie author, particularly if you’re aiming for excellent.)
Anecdotally, I can tell you that when I wrote MISSWIRED, and published it through my company, CommonSmarts Media, LLC, my goal was (and continues to be) to establish myself as an excellent writer of literary fiction and, for me, that means doing everything possible to ensure that I have an opportunity to iterate on my work, now and as long as I am alive, based on direct feedback from mass consumers, at my own optimal productivity pace, and with a handful of credible people that I’ve carefully selected. I don’t see self-publishing as a last resort; I see it as a must for any writer who wants to do this for life, any writer with product development experience, and any writer with an entrepreneurial mindset.
I am motivated and invigorated by running a business, both as a woman and as a minority who, at the onset, might otherwise have difficulty breaking into the nepotistic model of traditional publishing. Additionally, I am learning about what the business of selling books (vs. writing and producing them) actually entails, so if I ever do choose to work through a traditional publisher, I’ll be equipped with the knowledge to advocate for myself far more effectively and know when/where/how to fill any gaps in their offering.
This may be the opposite advice espoused by advocates of traditional publishing, but again, agents and traditional publishers are in direct competition with self-publishers for market share, and the world always needs quality writers. Hence, we’re not comparing apples to apples here.
Since I already have experience working in publishing (I used to lead the development of multimillion-dollar educational programs) and have gained wonderful experience from the projects and companies for whom I have worked (Bridgewater Associates, HBO, FCB Advertising), I love taking on all the challenges of running a small business.
I’m generally more comfortable in an entrepreneurial environment, partially from my upbringing, but also because of my naturally creative and analytical nature.
Ultimately, I opted not to acquire the traditional agent/publisher problem set because it felt like an arbitrary impediment to my end goal, given my experience, and my passion.
Now, if a traditional publisher reframed their offering and came pitching to me out of the blue today, I might reconsider it, but even then, would they pursue me without my initial upfront investment? Would it be worth it? I don’t know, but to quote Rayna James from the television series Nashville, “there’s plenty of sunshine for all.”
*February 2017 Big, Bad, Wide & International Report: covering Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo ebook sales in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2017/
If you have more questions about whether to pitch to a traditional publisher or to self-publish, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I know these decisions aren’t easy to make.
I’m terrified of public speaking. You wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t see my pulse explode like lightning behind my eyes while the embodiment of my childhood self scaled a tree. You’d see a polished woman with a gleaming smile, a woman who appears as though she can’t be rattled. I’d pull it off.
But I’m not perfect, and each time you see a talking head, cross-armed, or upright on stage with a professional photo that hails them as a success, I want you to know – it’s likely an illusion. Exposing our inner world to our outer world would require a daunting degree of integrity, a characteristic far less common than we choose to believe, a characteristic too threatening to our prevailing system of hobnobbery and haberdashery.
Let’s opine. What do you think sets my pulse on fire?
“Preparedness,” say some people.
“Lack of self-acceptance,” others believe.
“Breathing deeply will solve the problem.” Hasn’t worked yet.
“Just think of everyone naked.” Awkward. Not the way to go.
“Focus on the thing itself, the “what” of your art, then you won’t worry about what everyone thinks.”
That’s it. The last one: the “what of my art,” as in “what are you looking at?”
Maybe I don’t want to stand in the limelight. Maybe I’m already always in it. Maybe that’s what it means to be a woman in our society.
Maybe I don’t want more holes poked in my existence because it happens too often.
Maybe I’m working on my baggage.
But when I open up the bag and look inside, it’s filled with the same laundry all women are forced to carry. The same never-ending load.
As a teen, I was sent home from public school by the principle for wearing a pair of ripped jeans that had been patched up.
The reason: “they distracted the boys.”
What do ripped jeans have to do with my performance at school? Why was I penalized for their looks?
As a young professional, I was sent home by the head of the department for wearing a pair of mid-length shorts with a blazer (the same as many on my team) on the hottest day of the year. Of course, I was the only one sent home.
The reason: “If someone hits on you (specifically that man who has a crush on you), that will be a liability for us.”
Why was I penalized for his looks?
I once dated a man with credentials that shot through the roof. I was inspired by his commitment to his job. I aspired to commit to his level of productivity. I appreciated his creativity. Before we began dating, I told him, “I don’t understand why men give women flowers. Why do we rip life from the earth so that we can watch it die? What’s beautiful about that?”
So he bought me wooden roses. “These will never die,” he said.
I was smitten.
But that didn’t stop him from breaking into my email account and slut-shaming me to every person in my network – from family overseas to my employer – when I attempted leaving him. Imagine walking into the office the next day. At the time, there were no laws to protect me, just the stigma of being known as “the woman who was victimized.” Because, of course, this doesn’t happen to other women, a lot of other women.
Sure it does. It happens all the time. You can turn away, but it’s not unusual. Worse, just look at what happens to women in porn. Oh, sure, porn is “girl power.” Just think for $1400 a pop, you can take it in the rear. The more violent; the more “It’s just an act. She wanted it. She deserved it.” I wonder, will it be enough to pay for the prolapse too? One only need to look these women in the eyes to see the truth of their pain.
I’m tired of being judged. For working hard and being labeled a perfectionist, for pushing back and being deemed lazy. For being ignored. For being an outlier on a curve of generalities. For not being enough.
We talk about women’s self-confidence as though it’s women who need to change.
We tell them, lean in. Take on more. Apply for that job because your contemporaries are arrogant. Because they will beat their chests like bullies or strut there stuff like peacocks regardless of whether you apply or not.
We take on more. We take on heaps of unpaid labor and childcare. We tidy homes and prepare meals so others can stand on stage. And when we delegate the work, we load it onto, shocker, other low-paid women. We are bought and we are sold. And when a task goes amiss at our jobs, study after study shows that we take the blame. But we are withheld from receiving the credit.
We are held to another standard.
Then when one female superhero hits the privilege jackpot, and the stars align due to her own countless hours of hard work, and she pushes past the glass ceiling, and it appears on camera as though she is levitating down from the heavens, the reality is she’s crawling to the top, wondering, “how long can I balance in these stilettos before someone pushes me off the glass cliff?”
We seldom look at the data and say, let’s assess our hiring practices so that we weigh in the fact that women, as a whole, are more likely to apply for a job only when they are 100% qualified; that women are more heavily reprimanded when they fail; that they take on more at work; that they are less likely to receive credit. We rarely say let’s reshape our collective behavior so that when a woman fails at low priority tasks when she is performing her high priority tasks in an exemplary fashion, we reward her for taking the logical initiative to do what is better for our companies, and our societies. While we’re at it, let’s pay her for that unpaid labor in some way.
Instead, we tell her: be more confident.
Or we pick a fight – “Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you a stay-at-home mom or a working mom?” Apparently only one of these mothers is valuable. “Oh, you’re not planning to have children; that’s very selfish of you; you’re a monster.”
And we subconsciously think, “she’s too pretty to be smart or too female to be a genius (that distinction is for other people).”
We require perfection. But we don’t know what perfect is, let alone when it matters. And yet we have no problem using it as a weapon. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” we say. Of course, afterwards we reprimand her heavily for small mistakes, since anything less than perfect qualifies as a mistake.
Isn’t it time that we simply recognize that she is held to another standard … And we account for it?
What does this all have to do with standing in the limelight?
And yet everything.
Now, look at your daughters. Statistically, 1/3 of them will be sexually harassed at work, and 1/6 of them sexually assaulted.
Is that what you want?
Doesn’t it make you sick?
Are you going to say to them, “be more confident?”
Or are you going to say, “I’m going to fix this.”
Stop saying #Metoo. Start saying #IWillFixThis
Tara Makhmali is the author of MISSWIRED, a work of literary fiction, and the CEO of CommonSmarts Media, LLC.
There is a well
I have fallen into it
How ironic that I am encircled by wellness
When the outcome is grave
Perhaps if we cry
We’ll reach the brim
Perhaps if we descend as far as it goes
Cry dear friend
As long as you must
Time has no end
But oceans have thrust
Two hundred and eighty-two days—
The number of days she hummed on my back
To the tune of B-flat and a black hole
Fifty-seven octaves below middle C
That’s where I’d like to go for a swim,
In star and moonshine
Somewhere between your green-apple flesh
In the taste of sugar lips and grapevine
That’s from where all glow descends
From far away and wholly too close to see
That’s from where I carry my heart
Between my legs–oh, my back, help, my back, help, my knees
Somewhere between B-flat and a black hole
Fifty-seven octaves below middle C
Sprouted a Pharaoh from a flower
And they say she conquered, but we both know she is too kind to conquer
Too stubborn, too curly, and far too clever to care
Will she sleep in her own bed?
Perhaps if we are calm as though air
Perhaps if we conjure up Time,
The contortionist’s spine,
And we bend back, back, and back further still
Until over it spill, spill, spills in a great navy sea—
Beating and breathing and teeming and teething
And oh, here it comes—gasp, exhale—another feeding
Then forward we arch
Weightless we stand
Attracted to a universe strung like pearls in a band
Is the weight the dream? The universe, the mirror, the land?
I don’t know.
But I hear it; it echoes; and oh how it flows
And when I think I understand it—surprise! It grows
It crawled from outside inside and played drums with my art
It waddled from where we, the light, drove the darkness apart
Floating and sinking and slinking back with a pull
Tumbling and rolling and twirling and spinning
Leaping and falling and crying and grinning
Listening only as we do to the sound of One soul
Minus two hundred and eighty-two days
Is minus me
Fifty-seven octaves below middle C.
Never minus her, for she was born at one hundred and fifty pulses complete.
The rhythm of our infant’s infinite infallible beat
Where you, and I, and the circle repeat
Oh my loves, you are my loves.
Always and in all ways. And forever.
Dedicated to my husband Evan Steele Fensterstock on his birthday.
Inspired by the art of Aldo Tambellini, whose work and talk I was fortunate to see recently at the Anthology Film Archives as the guest of dear friend Dan Koff. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldo_Tambellini
And by a black hole, which, in fact, sings. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/universe/black_hole_sound.html
I like to do all my writing naked. Here I am rolling around on a fluffy white rug reflecting on the ins and outs of gratitude, empathy, independent thinking, and the plight of humanity.
Not. I do not write naked. And this is not me. Surprise! You’re the feature of this piece and you’re the one who’s getting naked. (By the way, those striped holiday leggings look, ahem, fantastic on you.) Now please stand up and glide your tush to the mirror. In front of you, you see–shocker, gasp–your own reflection.
Pause. Are you blushing? Do you turn away? Where is your focus? On your nether-bits? Your dimples? The crows feet around your eyes? Your chest? Your abs? Your biceps? Your breasts?
I submit; this headline is divisive. Divisive. I like that term. It’s a term we media addicts sip these days, a tactic usurped as our own delicious brew of modern savvy.
But let’s get back to the point of this piece.
What if in this mirror you see your soul? Not just your magnetic twinkling eyes, but all of you. Would you turn away then? Would you be too distracted by your imperfections to notice? Would you lean so far inward that your vision blurs? Or would you step back so that you could see yourself wholly and holy?
What if in that mirror all you saw was a Frankenstein conglomerate of Facebook posts, Instagram shots, so-called news articles and stereotypes about the type of person you are supposed to be with nothing to connect the dots in the space between?
Tada. Now here I am. Your subconscious. I’m looking at you under the microscopic lens of Devourer of Souls and Seeker of Truth. Let’s dive into the void, into those mangy little details. No, not into your calf implants Jonny Drama, but into that part of your brain that stores memory. I grab a lotto memory ball from your medial temporal lobe and here I see you sucking down cups of electric-charged, double-shot espresso lattes day after day, week after week, and year after year so that you can endure long days for people who forge gratitude in every two-faced “Thanks” at the bottom of their emails.
You know what I am talking about; don’t you? The tornado in a teacup that somehow keeps ruling your life? The truncated “Thanks” we drop at the bottom of each demand email as though the reader will experience gratitude rather than indignation.
Let’s pull out another memory. Here you are sick, burned-out from all those days of carrying a burden alone. You confide in your confidant, the boss or teammate that you have been dutifully dedicating your time to. You receive an email that says,
“I’m sorry to hear you are sick. Do you think you can still get meaningless-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things item to me?”
You wonder, what is empathy? You look it up. Wiki says, “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feelings with the heart of another.” You realize you’ve heard and seen people using this phrase–”I’m sorry to hear”– too often to one another. Each time you hear it, you realize it means absolutely nothing and that it is a transitional, transactional phrase. In fact, actual nothing would be better, more truthful.
You pivot.“It’s the intent that counts,” you tell yourself. “Language doesn’t matter. At least he or she said something to acknowledge my words.”
Ha! You look at yourself again. Who are you? Are you stock phrases? Are you a drone? Are you so focused on managing the illusion, the bare minimum of humanness, that you’ve stopped caring?
Your intuition appears. “Something isn’t right,” it tells you. You realize that the concept of “intent” is the justification every failed communicator uses when he or she doesn’t see the rational link between approach and outcome. You resolve never to use the phrase “I’m sorry to hear that … ” unless it is followed up with authentic empathy.
You take a breath. You pull another ball from the memory lotto. Here you are plugging away, day after day. No one sees you. Head down, you do what you’ve been asked. Head up, you’re at the whiteboard. You’re alive. You’re invigorated. You’re motivated. But you are alone. And this aloneness turns to isolation, to loneliness. You muster the courage to mention this emotion to the overseer of your work.
“Oh, it’s lonely leader syndrome,” they say to you, as you plug on day after sunny hopeful day.
Your loneliness elongates. Your intuition knocks on the door to your soul, “what does isolation have to do with leadership?” You think, sure, in some rare instances it might, but it’s more likely that loneliness has become arbitrarily assigned to leadership to stroke your ego, to ensure that you remain productive, to minimize the fact that emotionally you have been abandoned or you have abandoned yourself … all in the name of what? And for who?
You twirl. For a moment, you see the twinkle of yourself. You’re a child again. Free. Curious. Allowed to make mistakes. Allowed to connect. To love whomever you please without it being wrong. Or unprofessional. Or inappropriate.
You twirl again. The breeze is cold. You’re an adult now. Your reputation is on the line. Your fragile system of self-preservation is on the line.
You police your thoughts so that you can press on. You are an adult. You have mouths to feed. But, the question becomes, can you do it authentically? See link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2015/11/10/the-true-qualities-of-authentic-leaders/#6c6059ce320a
Yes, you tell yourself, you can, but only if you don’t use the word “but” in sentences because people only want to hear you agree with them. You should use “and” so not to offend egos. See link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2016/12/08/6-tricks-to-mastering-conflict/#155ed96f72fa
If you don’t, you won’t win the game.
Now you are exhausted. “Stop the glass-half-empty mentality,” you say to your bleeding soul. “See a shrink.” But your beautiful restless mind cajoles. “For what? So a doc can prescribe you medication for using your eyes and ears together with your mind and heart?”
See link: http://www.medicaldaily.com/antidepressants-arent-taken-depressed-majority-users-have-no-disorder-327940 See link: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/opinion/sunday/medicating-womens-feelings.html?_r=0&referer=https://duckduckgo.com/
And then you snap out of it. You know it’s not all bleak. And you submit, as you often do: “There are many possible ways to solve a problem.”
And you smile. You smile because you want to smile. Because smiling is true to your nature.
And you agree. You agree that we don’t understand the problems we are trying to solve. Because we are too afraid to be naked to even our own thoughts. Because we read. We see. We regurgitate what other’s have said. But our own ideas, our own thoughts–we don’t allow ourselves the space or the freedom to form them. We are too afraid of what people will think. It would be like walking into a plastic surgeon’s office and asking, “what part of my body could use improvement?” We would see too many red lines.
But the surgeon is not them. You are the surgeon.
Can you distinguish colonizing blood cells from rogue cancer?
Without the labels, they look strikingly similar; don’t they?
Are you the illness mimicking and diluting problems the way all the big banks did with subprime mortgages? See link: http://www.economist.com/news/schoolsbrief/21584534-effects-financial-crisis-are-still-being-felt-five-years-article
They were so self-serving that it hit the world like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See link: http://www.progressive.org/hiroshima.html
It’s the space between that counts.
My dream is that we will allow our children the freedom to see themselves as they are and not through the lens of the circus funhouse mirrors we force down our own throats.
My dream is that we remember that our most important work is self-reflection. Followed by action. Followed by more self-reflection.
Our children are watching.
If you appreciate my writing and would like for me to continue, please share this post.
Tara Makhmali is a confident, over-assertive, worthy, worthless, lazy, overambitious, un-leaning, too-far-leaning business woman with self-esteem issues. She is a wife, mother, daughter, and sister. She has a bachelors degree in English from the University of Massachusetts and a certification in project management. On occasion, she plays guitar and classical piano instead of doing laundry. Her debut fiction novel, MISSWIRED, is available for purchase on Amazon.
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“Pain + Reflection = Progress”
As long as we learn to embrace one another, we will be all right. Maybe even great. I heard a lot of noise during this election and it buried and confused the issues for too many people. It’s still unclear to me what happened that allowed our election to play out as it did. Many people believe our country voted from their pockets, and I am not opposed to this idea because I experience love every day from people of all different political affiliations and backgrounds and from every corner of the earth.
Sure, a bunch of misogynistic bigoted racists may have played some small role, but I intuit that this situation is much more nuanced than what meets the eye and feeds into fear.
I will continue to work to understand the deeper whats. I’m calling them whats and not whys because the mind has a tendency to divulge into automatic implicit hate when you begin diagnosing people whom you’ve never set out to befriend.
We have to believe in the goodness of people. There is no other choice.
When I originally began writing a novel, I had not one but two job offers from interesting companies. Neither had anything to do with my creative pursuits, not directly. One was from a top IT consulting company. The other, a hedge fund, run by a geopolitical-economist billionaire and meditator known as the Steve Jobs of the financial world. At the time, I remember thinking that anyone who meditates probably sees the need for compassion in the world the way I do, and I hoped that those who held the keys to the kingdom knew something profound about creativity and productivity that allowed them to weave lives together toward progress rather than extinguish it. I also had this hypothesis that, if given the opportunity to work in an environment of radical truth and hyper transparency, the guiding sales pitch of the organization, nothing could blindside me the way layoffs in advertising and publishing had (though I had been fortunate to withstand publishing layoffs and, in fact, gained substantial experience as a result), and of course, there would be a lot less “things are the way they are around here because that’s the way they always are, the way they always will be” whenever I asked the eyebrow-raising questions of “why” and “can we change it so it makes more sense?”
I knew if I took the job in finance, I would be challenged. I knew I would add stronger management capabilities to my arsenal of life experiences. And I felt that, in order to have meaningful impact in the creative realm, I needed to understand how the world actually worked. What is art if not science? What is science if not art?
I’m not going to hide that there was also an ego thing involved. The odds of being hired at the most prestigious hedge fund in the world was something like 1 out of 400, and that’s of the resumes they bothered to look at, which in and of itself made it more enticing. Now, let me tell you; I don’t have an ivy league diploma or a PhD, though I do hold a degree in English, and for a good part of my developmental years, my stepbrother, who I adore, playfully nicknamed me Tarda, mostly to torment me, but he said it enough times that I believed him a little. Up until high school, I had been one of the smarter kids in the classroom. Upon my mother’s remarriage, I lost my sense of identity and confidence and my grades plummeted, partially due to transitioning from schools with fairly diverse student bodies into a top high school that frankly lacked diversity, while, at the same time, adjusting to my new role as hormonal teenage stepchild/sibling. This demise in my grades came as a surprise to some people because, as one person so boldly put it, “I thought that since you were pretty, high school was easy for you.” Of course, this sentiment did not help the situation. In fact, it only fed into the otherness that I experienced during that time period and acutely belittled my achievements and ignored the constant male aggression and violation of me personally and many of my beloved female friends.
Now, despite not having been a top academic performer, I was donned by my classmates with superlatives such as “most likely to succeed in the music industry,” “most musical,” runner-up for “most attractive” (obviously an important life skill), and something along the lines of “most likely to wear a turban around her head and open a Quicki Mart.” (Perhaps one of the more modest racist remarks I’ve encountered over the years.)
But I did have a few other important things going for me. Namely, I was and am a fairly observant person fortunate to have an arguably pleasant personality and a genuine curiosity and caring for human beings that some find refreshing and disarming and others find unsettling and exposing. I have always questioned the way things are to see what’s true, and I am very hard on myself. The other thing I had (and have) going for me is that I am brave.
As an immigrant born into a regime change that forced my family to move across oceans and continents and from state to state, I constantly was changing schools, and hence I grew particularly excellent at handling first impressions. Likewise, as a child from a hated middle eastern country whose family once had everything and then had it taken away, I knew the meaning of humility and gratitude. I knew what it meant to depend on free school lunches, and the kindness of neighbors who looked after my little sister and me while my single mother was in school, and what a toggle coat from the Salvation Army could do for a child through a Michigan winter. I knew what it meant to hold my mother in her arms when there was no one else for her to cry to but her oldest child. ( I love you mom) And believe it or not, this gave me strength; it gave me grit. It gave me a sort of understanding that everything is temporary, but that there is a sort of immortality to compassion.
It also made me want to be liked, as I assume all people do, and I believed that if I could just follow the middle path, I could connect with people from all races and backgrounds and they would find a way to let me into their hearts. And that is how I learned bravery. If you could hand out PhDs for open-mindedness, likability, and picking yourself up by your bootstraps, you may wish to consider me a viable honorary candidate. Okay, back to the job situation …
I assumed that a financial firm that warned the government of the ’08 financial crisis long before anyone wanted to listen and that was capable of managing 200 billion in assets probably had a little insight into the creative vitality I so desperately craved. I always believed that to create great art, one must understand how the world actually works, how business works. Plus, mindfulness in finance just seemed like a good idea, and I figured that, as a do-gooder type, which I still believe most people are, I had a responsibility or the way mom puts it, “the ability to respond,” to the growing need of putting trustworthy people into a shady industry.
So I took the job as a referrals program manager in recruiting for the god of finance. I thought, here is a figure looking to create a new environment of civility and honesty, and we need more companies who are willing to be this way. I want to help. I want to create a pipeline of smart, open-minded people who make excellent life choices, and know how to auto-correct their mistakes because they are relentless self-improvers. Who wouldn’t want to be around people like that?
Also, what would I learn about radical and hyper truth and transparency that I did not already know? Would I gain a deeper understanding of self? Would that which I assumed truthful actually be truthful in application? Would the tenants of hyper truth and hyper transparency actually feed our universal consciousness in a way that created a better world? I wanted to see the wizard in action. I wanted to know how the world really worked.
There were some disadvantages to the position. The hedge fund was in Connecticut and I resided in New Jersey. I had an open question about whether if I loved everything about my job, would an annoying commute matter? Or would my smitten lens merely shift away from the pain and zoom in on the pleasure?
I concluded that if I loved whatever it was that I was about to take on, I would eventually move closer, or it wouldn’t matter. I was also quite fortunate because I had, by this time, immersed myself in the company of my soon-to-be-family, for I was engaged, and my soon-to-be-made mother-in-law (a smart and savvy business mogul with a prestigious MBA under her belt; three successful children; and a coveted executive recruiting firm, among many other grand achievements) chauffeured my 29-year-old arse to and from work; as did a taxicab driver by the name of Nancy, who grew so fond of me that each evening she checked to see where I was, and would continuously ask “are you the only one there again tonight?” Not to mention a generous pregnant woman whose name I wish I could remember, who worked for the firm and sometimes picked me up in the mornings. Here’s where I’d like to point out that women are already helping women; we always are and always have been helping each other, though sometimes people like to ruminate over the baloney of how women keep other women down, which basically just distracts us from the issue of how to get to where we want to be.
Unfortunately, I quickly learned I was not cut out for the job. Why? Actually, it’s fairly simple, but as many simple things go, they seemed complicated at the time.
One. The commute was killing me. It sounds extreme, but have you tried traveling three states on a frequent basis and upon your journey had to stand under the neon lights of 42nd and Eighth Avenue in the dark wee hours of morning next to Times Scare, across from the peep show place? It is a shock to the soul. Yuck.
Two. There is a difference between truth and transparency and running your mouth like a petulant child, which, as it turns out, is neither completely truthful nor is it actually transparent. In fact, it extinguished the creative energy in which I so excitedly expected to manifest into my own being. The environment I experienced was one part truth; one part transparent; and the other ninety-eight percent was unprocessed, often irrelevant un-amassed data that you or others were vomiting out into the world, either onto yourselves or onto each other, and in many cases this completely buried that one part truth—I found myself constantly holding a shovel, and wondering if I should just go forth and bury myself. I suppose if meditation was a requirement and not merely a suggestion, there would’ve been a lot less of that. My guess is that the company did not want to seem cultish, but they probably should’ve risked it. What is meditation if not the ability to reduce mind garbage?
Three. Transparency is not always appropriate. Sure, I would like to know there’s ketchup on my face. I would like to know I’m walking around with my fly down. But I don’t need it announced over the loudspeaker. There is a spectrum of transparency that either creates fairness or, without tact, creates fear. We spent so much time reviewing videos of people’s utter failures before I even started the work that by the time I began working I was already afraid. Now, I wouldn’t call it a “cauldron of fear” the way recent articles claim. That’s pretty darn dramatic. But, because I’ve been told, and I believe this to be true, that I am quite brave, and because I felt I needed to be too brave all the time, and because sometimes I couldn’t even muster the desired braveness necessary, I knew something was off. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely made mistakes. I’m not perfect either.
So what did I do? I went back and took the job with the IT consulting firm. And my next role, in some ways, was a perfect fit—help people make sense of boatloads of data, also known as “media asset management.” Only, this time, the data was the exact opposite of garbage; it was treasure. And the people that I loved—my clients—knew how to love me back. And this was a win-win partnership.
I stayed for over a year. I learned things about diplomacy I don’t think I ever would’ve learned had I not been surrounded by such intellectual, compassionate people. I learned that transparency is a card you play when the timing is right. That truth is sometimes useless. That dedication to excellence and precision requires the revelation that what you are and what you create is and will always be imperfect, and that imperfection is what gives life purpose. I learned that at every moment exists an opportunity to create the conditions for productivity, to create the life that you want—the world that you want. I learned that too much diplomacy is a giant waste of time and that it can almost permanently destroy curious minds. I learned that there always exists two games: the game of Creation and the game of Perception and that your temperament, genetics, upbringing and communication skills can make you better or worse at either of these games. I learned that what works is not usually this or that, but rather a combination of this and that. But only up until a point, where again too much and dilutes creation and renders us useless.
And then I left. Why? Well, that is a post for another day.
Most of you wouldn’t take me for a biker. No, not a leather-jacket-wearing skull-and-cross-bones and tattoos biker, though if you knew me in college, I had a pierced nose and toured Rome on my uncle’s Harley. (I think he might be legally blind by the way). I haven’t seen him in years. If you happen to read this Uncle, I miss you.
I was the kid who rode her bicycle down a flight of stairs hands free with her little sister strapped behind her. I crashed into walls. I fell into thorns. I landed in trees. I was always the first to arrive at school, and the last to leave the playground. I would carry my bike to the top of the slide and see how far I could fly it and land it into the sandpit below the slide. Then, I would run a hose down the slide, and see how running water changed the velocity of the bike and the density of the sand in the pit. This is what it means to be curious. This is what it means to learn.
Those were good times. Unforgettable times. Often someone would steal my bike, and I’d go steal it back. And usually, it was a kid I liked. That was pretty common where I grew up. You never saw a bike locked up, and you never saw one torn to shreds the way you see sometimes nowadays. But you did see someone else riding around on it if you weren’t careful, and they could change it, for better or worse. It could take weeks, even months, to figure out how to get it back. I always got it back eventually. That is how I learned strategy.
People sometimes passed judgement. My hair was one large knot masquerading as hair, and my mom struggled to make ends meet. Why was I left alone so often? Was I neglected? We were immigrants in a nation that hated us, but that accepted us anyway. Long after the dealmakers make their deals, we are still outlanders. Yet, I am (and was) as happy, proud, and inspired by my host country, my home, as I am today by own Persian ancestry.
My parents were smart. Fun was part of every day life. They made something out of nothing. So I made something out of nothing. They left war in pursuit of education. They divorced. They suffered. They continued loving anyway. They bent their knees and bowed their heads to the space between humanity and the universe, and they fed it more love, even when humanity fed them more hate.
They served the collective consciousness—that heaping ball of cosmic energy that giveth and taketh away. My parents did not neglect. They did the opposite: they trusted me.
Because fun comes from pouring love into the life you have, not in some hokey, tripped-out, oblivious sort of way where you’re handing out flowers to strangers on the street. Of course, if that’s your thing, no disrespect intended. I’m talking about the kind of love that leads a kid to curiously ask, “what does it feel like to go cycling down these stairs? Maybe my sister wants to come. What happens when you run the hose? Let’s fly!” And then letting that kid go at it again and again until she understands the conditions that allow her to create the best experience with the tools she has until one day she has created an elating game that inspires all the other neighborhood kids, and they want to do the same thing, but better or different with tools of their own. That is productivity.
And this brings me to an open question I have about something I hear in Corporate America sometimes. Have you ever heard someone say, “I think he (or she) may be too much of a free spirit for this company,” like it’s a bad thing to have a free spirit, and that he or she should be rejected for it?
Do you think this is good? Is it actually true that being a free spirit is a bad thing?
I’ll tell you something: any company or person who wants to hire a caged spirit or wants to cage a free spirit is full of sh*t. Because freedom of spirit is the impetus for curiosity, and curiosity is the impetus for creativity, and creativity is the impetus for productivity, and productivity is what makes our world go round.
And as business owners, leaders, parents, educators and members of society, we have a responsibility to fight for that spirit. We have a responsibility to create the conditions that allow ordinary people to make fun out of almost nothing, and not in that “fun is what you do after-hours” sort of way, or in that “fun is pizza and beer on-the-job” sort of way, but by getting off the smack that a free spirit is something to be afraid of. By getting off the smack that every day playfulness is bad. By getting off the smack that hard work means working unhappily for long periods of time.
We need to create environments where people feel safe to explore; environments that reward individuals for their curiosities, regardless of how their curiosities come to fruition and how they pan out. We need to create environments where our differences are protected like treasures. We need to create frameworks that foster authenticity and acceptance. And we need to do it now.
Because pure fun is a byproduct of being your authentic self, and loving life is what makes people want to actually live their lives. That’s pretty important, don’t you think? The continuation of humanity.
And so I am told that the robots are coming. They will replace our jobs. It’s up to you to decide what makes sense, but I say, let’s go steal our bikes back.
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Rocky is a highly curious person who wants to be exceptional. He has a question many people have. How can I be extraordinary?
I want to be the best version of me I can be. I want success.
First things first, Rocky studies hard and is admitted into a notable college.
Four years later, he graduates with a degree in liberal arts. He is recruited by a reputable company. They have high revenues, distinguished clientele, and accomplished staff.
The recruiter says, “we would like to offer you the role of Senior Associate of Button Pressing Operations. Despite the title, it is an important position. All of our products and services depend on it.”
“Hmmm,”Rocky says. “Pressing buttons, or button-pressing operations, however you define it, doesn’t seem true to my nature, strengths, and abilities. I am more of a creative person. I would prefer a more strategic role.”
“You finished school recently,” she says. “At your age, you should explore. What you need is to surround yourself with accomplished people. Your boss is accomplished. He is Chief Director of Global Button Pressing Operations. You will learn so much from him.”
She continues, “we believe you will have a wonderful career here. With hard work and discipline, we will make you a success. Have I mentioned the handsome pay?”
Rocky is handsome. His grooming supplies and education loans have left him with a hefty debt. Time is of the essence.
Reputable Company + Important Job + Accomplished Boss + High Salary + Hard Work = Success. Right? His stomach churns.
With no time left to think, he slides his fingers through his silky hair and responds, “Why, yes, I am handsome, thank you. I accept your offer. After all, successful people are important people. I want to be successful; therefore, if I am important, then I will be successful.”
“Terrific!” the recruiter responds, agreeing with Rocky’s logic.
Rocky spends 4 years pressing buttons. He thinks, if I work quickly and for many hours each day, I will most certainly grow to be the best button-presser in the world! I will pay off my debts. My boss will think I am phenomenal. He is accomplished. I will follow in his footsteps and earn a fancier and more important title. People will like me. I will be a great success. I will be extraordinary.
And people do like Rocky. In fact, he makes many new like-minded friends along the way, although, not surprisingly, he never hears from the recruiter again.
Together with his colleagues, he “works hard and plays hard.” He presses buttons for long hours each day. He guzzles coffee, eats glutinous meals, enjoys a nonstop fountain of scotch, wine, and fine beers, and what’s left of his precious time is spent watching mundane television shows and betting on sports games.
It feels good to be part of a team. It feels good to be needed. It feels good to bond. The team’s mantra is, “we’re in the bunker together!”
But Rocky’s gut feeling is slowly turning into a gut problem. He visits the doctor.
Doc says, “your stomach is growing a hole in it. I’m prescribing you meds.”
Rocky says, “will they work?”
Doc smiles, “they should lessen the symptoms.”
Rocky assumes it’s all part of growing older. This is normal, right? Doesn’t everyone’s health deteriorate with age?
“Thank you,” he says, and he takes the meds.
The next day, he plans to hop back into work as usual. But the meds make him dizzy. He can barely get out of bed.
He takes a deep breath. It feels good, so he takes a few more. And a few more after that.
Suddenly he thinks, wait a minute, why is life a bunker? Are we soldiers in war? I am a button-presser. That shouldn’t be our mantra. Maybe I need a vacation.
He can’t remember the last time he had a vacation. He books a trip and off he goes!
It’s beautiful there. Walking along the beach, he looks up at the sky. The sun warms his cheeks. The ocean glimmers.
“Eureka!” He smiles. “I have an idea!”
Eagerly the next week, he returns to work. “I have an idea!” he exclaims. “It will revolutionize button-pressing forever. No human shall have to waste his life pushing buttons this way! Just imagine the joy we will bring!”
His boss laughs. “Nice idea,” he says, “but it’s not realistic. Looks like you’ve got a little too much sun.”
Rocky is confused. He hangs his head. His stomach burns. He thinks, what am I doing here?
He confides in his friends. “What should I do? Where did I go wrong?”
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” they say. “That’s just the way things are, the way they’ve always been. We all have dreams about who we will grow up to be when we are young, and then reality settles in. Don’t give up button-pressing. You’re not a quitter. Button-pressing is your life. Button-pressing is who you are. Who are you if not a button-presser? What will you do without handsome pay? How will you survive? What will we do without you? We need you in the bunker!”
Overwhelmed, Rocky takes a deep breath. It feels good, so he takes another, and another, and another until he’s almost euphoric.
A thought pops into his head. A question, a series of questions. Who am I? Do I suck? What do I want?
And as if from some deep arsenal of knowledge growing from within him, the answers emerge.
Oh Rocky, isn’t it obvious? You know what you want. You want to unleash your creativity, and instead, here you are pressing buttons. You are uninteresting, bored and you work a job that goes against your gut. You drink too much. You eat too much, and frankly, your handsomeness is going down the drain.
I’m sorry to tell you, my friend, that your cohort is united in suffering. They believe they are in a bunker. Because they are in a bunker. Because life is a bunker to them. They point to your weaknesses and call them strengths. They demote your strengths to weaknesses. Don’t you deserve a shot at happiness?
Handsome pay, brand names, accomplished people. It all sound great, but who is controlling your destiny? This is the checklist for someone else’s vision, the formula for someone else’s success! Don’t you owe it to yourself to define your own framework for success?
Rocky, you are magnificent. You are ambitious. You are creative. You went to a notable school. What are you doing sitting here, pressing buttons, numbing your mind and your gut until there is a huge hole in it?
Listen Rocky, no one is immune from making mistakes. No one is immune from career paralysis. No one can define success for you. You must think for yourself. Believe in who you are. Believe in who you want to be. Acknowledge your nature. Your desires. Your abilities. Give your instincts a chance to guide you. Give your abilities a chance to flourish. It’s time to take a risk. It’s time to break free.
The next morning, Rocky is afraid. His stomach still churns, but he decides it’s time to set out on a new journey. He doesn’t care about what accomplished people think. Okay, he does care. In fact, he cares a ton. But what he cares about more is what’s true. He cares about the approach. He cares about defining his own vision, his own strategy, his own path, his own framework for success.
And it turns out that once Rocky believes and invests in himself, so do his friends, and so do accomplished people. They give him a cowboy hat and a set of Moleskin notebooks and send him on his way. But not before throwing him a proper goodbye party.
So let’s all raise our glasses to Rocky, and to life’s most satisfying moments. Those moments, when you, the individual, choose a pursuit worthy of your time, and give it everything you have. Not for the fame! Not for the money! Certainly not because someone said so! But because it brings true meaning to your life, AND NOT THE ILLUSION OF MEANING.
Rocky tips his hat and thanks his friends.
By: Tara Makhmali
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Somewhere, everywhere, toddlers around the world are teaching their parents to slow down, to take a breather, to just enjoy.
Oh how that phrase used to bother me! It meant “tolerate the intolerable, suck it up.”
I found a new way to hear it.
It starts with a question.
How can I experience joy right now?
Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. But this moment. This moment that is a present.
I don’t have to tolerate the intolerable. I shouldn’t.
What can I do to make this fun?
Zoom in on the pleasure. Pan out on the pain. Pick a new focal point.
Remove something from the recipe. Add something.
Lemon with honey, cranberries with sugar, a pinch of this and a dash of that is what makes a delicious meal delicious.
Maybe I’ll turn up the volume. There’s a song playing that I like.
Maybe I’ll tune out the noise. Now I can hear.
Now I can receive.
You don’t need to enjoy to be in joy.
You are in joy.
Euphoria is inside.