On Challenging What is Expected, In Order To Create Something Extraordinary

Last week I wrote about finding clarity in one’s goals, and in being mindful enough to celebrate small successes. One response I received via email floored me:

“Your email struck a chord with me. The past year I have worked harder than ever and I feel like I’m on a ride that I can’t get off. I don’t celebrate the successes, any of them. Over the past year I’ve written twenty-two novelettes (a fun, branded series for young and old), had eighteen of them professionally edited and commissioned artwork for covers, published eighteen ebooks, published two paperback books, and am about to publish the third. I adore the reactions I get when I hand them to people and they say “These don’t look like self-published books.”

This came from Dannal Newman, who in 2014 began working toward his goal of writing 57 novelettes in a series called The Trying Tales of Chumbles & Grim. He is making them available individually as he writes them, and is repackaging groups of stories into collections (collection 1 and collection 2.) When finished, he will have 10 collections available. His stories are aimed at kids ages 9 and up, and he describes them as being in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, though they are not detective mysteries.

I started emailing with Dannal, and then asked if we could chat via phone. Everything he told me I found intriguing. Not just his bold goal, but how professional his book covers looked, his enthusiasm, and how honest he was not just about his goals, but also the sacrifice that comes with them. He told me about having to give up time with his kids in order to write, and how his wife had to adjust in the process.

In fact, I noticed that Dannal mentioned his wife again and again, always in a supportive way. It reminded me how writing is a group effort, even though there is only one author. His wife and kids are an intimate part of this process, and they each make their own sacrifices for the work.

Dannal is 41, just as I am, and he mentioned how recently, the years just seemed to flow together. He decided he wanted 2014 to be different. He didn’t want this year to blend anonymously with all the rest — he wanted to have a body of work to show for it.

So much of what he is doing is about challenging what is expected of him — his responsibilities to his job, his spouse, his kids, and to himself, among other things.

When talking with writers and other creative professionals, they often tell me how overwhelmed they feel by their many varied responsibilities. What I find is that in order to create a meaningful body of work while living up to important responsibilities, you do indeed have to begin questioning things presented as “normal.”

This hit home as I finished up Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity Inc. this week; he ended with reflections on Steve Jobs:

“Much has been made of Steve’s refusal to follow rules — realities — that applied to others; famously, for example, he did not put a license plate on his car. But to focus too much on this is to miss something important. He recognized that many rules were in fact arbitrary. Yes, he tested boundaries and crossed the line at times. As a behavioral trait, that can be seen as antisocial — or if it happens to change the world, it can earn you the label “visionary.” We frequently support the idea of pushing boundaries in theory, ignoring the trouble it can cause in practice.”

Clearly, Dannal is going through his own version of this. And from what I find, we all do. In order to focus on what matters most to you, you have to make difficult decisions, even those that don’t feel “normal.” I talked about this the other week when I mentioned how I take a nap every day. This is not considered “normal” for someone like me, and that can create a stigma when it is my everyday reality.

Other times, you need an almost willful ignorance of things that don’t lead you improving your craft. Earlier in the year, I reflected on how Ira Glass did exactly this when an interviewer asked him about a recent news story. Ira calmly expressed his ignorance of the story and the people involved. I reflected on this in the blog post:

“What I find intriguing about the interview is that, regardless of this, how calm, honest and unapologetic Glass is. He is being interviewed by the media, knows that as he is expressing his ignorance that it is being recorded for publication.”

“Yet, he is confident that his ignorance will not embarrass himself, that he is focused on enough of the right things, that if he doesn’t know EVERYTHING, that he is doing just fine. That there are limits to what he can know and care about in a given week. Not knowing about a news story days after it happens does not incite fear into him that he is uncaring or out of the loop, and it likely has little reflection on his personal attitudes of the issue itself. He was just working, head down, on projects of high quality, and has forgiven himself if that means he misses things.”

What is so astounding is how Ira let go of any guilt around what he was ignorant of.

For each of us, in order to create a body of work that we are proud of, it will be a process filled with difficult decisions about where to put your energy, and what you have to ignore. To cut away as much as you can so that focusing on what matters most gets done.

Dannal is still in that difficult place of sacrifice and hard work, when it seems as though few others are even noticing. At the end of our call, he said this me:

“When you responded and were excited, that is what I have been waiting for — for someone to notice, to see what I am doing.”

It reminded me of themes I reflected on recently with regards to Amanda Palmer, of the value of truly connecting with others.

When you consider the coming year, how will you make more room for the extraordinary to become possible in your life?