What It Takes

What It Takes

The Necessity of Discomfort

By Shawn Coyne | Published: June 22, 2012

I do it all the time. I take on just enough projects and personal commitments to periodically induce a panic attack. It occurs every three months. Like clockwork.

I’m working with writers on three novels, three works of nonfiction and lending a hand promoting two of their books. Each of these projects requires me to write an extensive brief of editorial notes and ideas.

And…No….Verbal notes won’t suffice. I can’t just get on the phone and pontificate off the top of my head.

If you are asked and you agree to evaluate someone’s work, you must show the artist respect. Writing down criticism requires you to back up your point of view in concrete language. What you find when you write your notes is that you discover solutions to the very challenges you are pointing out to the writer.

If you just jib jab about what’s wrong with a book or script or ad campaign or blueprint, you don’t allow your brain to fully process the information, clarify it, and then provide suggestions to solve the problems you identify. You’re not doing your job. You’re blowing smoke.

I’ve promised my work to these clients all within a two week window. I’m now at the tail end of the first week and I’m getting hinky.

Plus I’m moving into my old apartment in three weeks [long boring New York story that even New Yorkers are sick of]. I must pack the belongings of a family of five and somehow get them from the east side of Manhattan to the west side during the hottest period of the year.

And I got the easy job on our family “to do” list.

Every time I reach this boiling point, I promise myself I will not put myself in this position again.

To top it off, it is in these moments in our life when the “peripheral opponents” that Steve talks about in THE WAR OF ART get louder and more convincing.

It may be the MBA at a cocktail party who gives you a blank stare after you’ve answered his “what do you do?” question and then walks away shaking his head.

Or it could be the passive aggressive cousin who “compliments” you by saying “I’d never have the courage to put my family in financial risk the way you do…good for you for being so unconventional.”

Or it’s an announcement that your professional bête noire, the one person in the world in desperate need of comeuppance, has just had yet another stellar success.

When you are under a deadline (and you need to set them!), the voices you can usually ignore day to day get louder and louder. They make you doubt every decision you’ve made since you froze on stage in your second grade play.

Believe it or not, this extreme discomfort is a good sign. It means you’re in the fight. You’re in the ring and taking some jabs and body blows, but you’re still standing. Hang in there.

If you don’t stare down the horror of failing or disappointing someone with your work, you’re not loping off any of those 10,000 hours everyone says you need to put in to become exceptional.

If you don’t have dark “all is lost” moments, you’re not a pro. You’re goofing around with a hobby. I know because I’m really good at goofing around. If you find yourself goofing, get your ass back in the ring!

Steve Pressfield faces this stuff every day of his life.  It’s not any easier for him than it is for you or me. Probably harder because he’s known as the white knight leading the charge against Resistance.  He defined the very idea of Resistance. He has the big R flat on his back, right?

Not so much.

When Steve was writing Turning Pro, he sent me draft after draft of okay work. It was fine. But when I’d take longer than I usually do getting back to him he knew I wasn’t convinced that the book was there yet. We’ve worked together for 15 years he knows my ticks like I know his.

So instead of grinding on it, we’d put the project on the “back burner” for a couple of weeks or months depending upon other stuff we had in the pipeline. But we both knew that that the only way he could dissipate the discomfort of not nailing the book was to go back and rework it again.

He did. Again and again and again. And then again. All told, it took about three years to feel right. It’s much more difficult to write an intense short book than a meandering long one.

And when we finally did put the book to bed—had it designed, proofed it, had it corrected, proofed it again, and again for four different formats—Steve still found stuff he thought could be better.

Now he must live with the discomfort of knowing he can’t make it perfect. He gave as good as he got in that bout and won. I think by a knockout in the 12th round. But now he has a hundred other looming deadlines. He has to move forward. He has to let it go. He’s a pro.

Being a pro ain’t easy, but it beats trying to impress someone who has no interest in anything you do, taking inane verbal gobbledygook seriously, or worrying about other peoples’ success or failure.

Being a pro keeps you focused on what’s important…on the work that gives your life meaning.

Posted in What It Takes

11 Responses to “The Necessity of Discomfort”

  1. Tricia
    June 22, 2012 at 7:47 am

    For some reason, I read that MBA abbreviation in my own offbeat distorted way and it made me laugh out loud. Laughter always helps along the way … to be able to see the ridiculous in the inane mundane gobbledygook. But it ain’t always easy, as you say.

  2. June 22, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Well said Shawn,

    Back when I was a born again, my friends and I came up with the term, “Godly Discontent.” It was based on the idea that if things were too comfortable in your life, you would never do anything; why try something new when everything in your life is already working for you?

    For some reason creative people are best motivated by discomfort. We see our work, and know we can do better. Its just weird to be thankful for being unhappy, but that is what it boils down to. No one is going to sell a lick of advertising trying to get you to be uncomfortable, this is not a message that is going to get reinforced outside of a few small sources (such as this blog) but it is crucial to the success of a creative person.

  3. FJR
    June 22, 2012 at 11:52 am

    I appreciate the focus on putting our work to real scrutiny to make it excellent. You are talking about doing what it takes to make it great rather than the all-too-common self congratulation followed by jumping to seek audience before you have something truly worth offering.

  4. June 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I hope you and Steven and Callie know how much people like me appreciate people like you, Shawn. I’m not sure where I went for inspiration before I found this site. All that matters is that I did.

    Steven, I feel like the post you wrote about not doing interviews (to speak of, so to…speak) was written just for me. There are plenty of people I can interview. Thanks largely to you, I have the courage to keep finding them and producing what I’d like to think of as art, sparkling conversation.

    And Shawn, I wake up scared almost every night–wondering if I’m gambling with our family’s grocery money as I try to get a national talk show established. Your observation–that this discomfort is a good sign, that it means I’m in the fight–will keep me going for a very long time.

    Thank you all, again, so much.

  5. June 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Although your post does not relieve the feelings I have in the “discomfort zone” as I rewrite my book proposal (once again!) to get it to sing, it does give me comfort of sorts to know that other creatives are also struggling in similar ways to bring their own ideas to fruition and make their dreams come true. That the feelings I have are also felt by others in the struggle.

    It’s a crazy business, ain’t it now?

  6. June 24, 2012 at 8:09 am

    Your passive-aggressive cousin story made me laugh out loud. Sometimes that “cousin” is staring at us in the mirror. I occasionally envy other people in their jobs they tolerate – because it’s so much easier to show up everyday for the job you tolerate, than it is to make the one you love – work.
    Anyway – thanks for a great post.

  7. Basilis
    June 25, 2012 at 12:56 am

    So, we just have to seek the discomfort zone by searching resistance.
    Kind of crazy isn’t it?

  8. June 25, 2012 at 6:27 am

    Just finished Turning Pro last week. Thank you for taking the time to make it compelling. I love books that you can put yourself into in lieu of thinking ‘my buddy, my employ, my neighbor, etc. should be reading this. I found myself reading, pausing, thinking, asking questions, ponder the answers and reading some more. It was thrilling.

    Have an amazing week.

    M

  9. June 25, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    So, um, when can I get on your to-do reading/critiquing/editing list? Half-seriously, is it any wonder create projects are compared to giving birth? (Or passing gas:) Sort of like an old Simon & Garfunkel song (now that dates me!)

    All of which is to day this is a post I’ve read a few times and am bookmarking for once and future reading. Thanks. Good stuff, as usual.

  10. Sonja
    July 4, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I LOVED Turning Pro. I’m so glad Steven put it out there. I cringed when I read certain parts that I could relate to–Hey, he’s talking about me. : )

    It’s so easy to see the final product and think it somehow came easy for him to produce this book.

    What I love about your writing Sean is your brutal honesty. It never fails to make me think.

    Thank you so much for all you do for us struggling artists.

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