The most powerful lesson of the creative life.
Never Forget: The Response is Always Yours.
I think it's the most powerful idea in all of life and there are two reasons to talk with you about it today, but first let's get to the root of the idea itself.
It has many expressions but perhaps the best encapsulation comes from Viktor Frankl, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor, who wrote in Man's Search for Meaning:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Frankl's talking about the power to choose. In every situation in life, in every encounter, you have the power to choose how you'll respond.
It often doesn't feel that way. It often feels like life's cornered you. Frankl certainly felt cornered in Auschwitz. But as he wrote in Man's Search for Meaning:
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond...The last of one’s freedom’s is to choose one’s attitudes in any given circumstance.”
Even in a concentration camp, then, where despair was as prevalent as death, Frankl found a way to look at the horrors around him and choose to think about his wife, or his home, or how the camp itself could be the grounds for an education in perseverance. Frankl discovered something in Auschwitz that Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher and writer I talk about often here, also knew:
We cannot control outside events. We can only control how we respond to them.
This idea—that the power to choose is always yours—sounds too rah-rah and overly halftime-speech-y and should probably be dismissed as such, right? I know I dismissed it for a long time. It's hard to choose your response in life. It's much easier, and often more immediately satisfying, to agree with that shit-talking colleague, to see the doom in any creative endeavor, to be anxious about the future of this perilous industry we love: storytelling.
The more I read, though, the more I saw the appearance of the power to choose in other books, across millennia and even religious traditions. It's all over Reinhold Niebuhr's writing, the Christian theologian who distilled the notion in his now ubiquitous Serenity Prayer:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Choosing your response runs through Buddhism, too. When Rebecca Pacheco came on the podcast this week, we talked about the Buddha's biography. The meditative practices rooted in Buddhism are themselves practices in pausing, in viewing your thoughts and emotions more objectively. "I am not my fear," Rebecca said at one point. Which is another way to say, I contain fear, yes. But I can choose to live my life in a way where I'm not bound by it.
Which brings us to why to the point of today's piece.
One year ago today ESPN laid me off. I had worked there in some capacity for 17 years. The whole of my professional life was bound with that place. I was terrified one year ago today about what the future might hold. How would I find work, in the middle of a pandemic, and when no one was hiring? How would I feed my wife and three kids and my mother-in-law, who lives with us? How would I keep the roof over our head?
One year ago today I was also inspired. I had adopted the power to choose one's response as my mantra for life. The idea seemed to course through the whole of civilization. If it could work for everyone else, I thought, why not me?
So I tested it. In the days and months after November 5th I chose to see the fear that gripped me as an obstacle to surmount, on the other side of which lay the life I wanted to lead. I started entrepreneurial ventures. I landed clients. I pitched magazines and websites I'd been meaning to for years. I took on two new book projects: One to write, a story quite dear to me; and another to edit, a project I'd never tried before.
I remained terrified, too. Couldn't these people see the fraud I saw? There were many, many days I wanted to give up. On some days I cried. But I returned to the notion that the FDR administration talked about among themselves during The Great Depression, when implementing the New Deal: Don't waste this crisis. I had always wanted to strike out on my own. I needed to choose to see this crisis of anxiety as the brush I had to clear, before I could walk on the wide and well-lit path I'd dreamed about.
So day after day I cleared brush.
One year later the path is wider, though brush remains. Maybe it always will.
There was one project across almost the whole of this last year that I worked on every day. It was a digital course on the thing I'd fallen in love with 25 years ago, the thing that still invigorated me each morning: longform storytelling. I wanted to pass on what I'd learned. I wanted anyone interested to have in a manner of days the knowledge that took me decades to acquire. I wanted to do this because, well, I come from teachers and I'd increasingly had the urge to teach. But mostly because I saw that I could offer something most universities and even MFA programs don't.
I won't turn today's edition into a pitch. If you subscribe to the newsletter you've no doubt seen me talk about the course and free workshop this week. The reason I have—and will continue to do so over roughly the next week—isn't to bombard you with sales pitches. If you see them that way you can always unsubscribe. No, the reason I'm talking about this stuff is because I've done what I've set out to do: To give back, to pass on.
On November 5th, one year later, the course is the project I'm proudest of. I had to learn how to teach others and then learn interfaces and software I hadn't used before. Getting this course to the point where I could say, This is the work I'm proudest of—that was the biggest brush to clear these last 365 days.
You can sign up for its free workshop or not. That isn't the point of today's edition. It isn't even that one year ago today I chose to lead a new life for myself. It's instead to show you that what I have done, you can do on any day and at any time of day as well. You don't have to choose to do something entrepreneurial like me. You can choose to write a story that's a little longer, or pitch your boss on the podcast you'd like to produce. You can choose each day to be a better spouse, or parent, or sibling.
Never forget: That response is always yours. Because your life is yours. And your choices are too.
Even if, no, especially when, they feel like they aren't.
Viktor Frankl, after the war's end.