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How often do you allow yourself to be terrible?

Today is October 16 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you allow yourself to be terrible?” In his Psychology Today article "Fight Anxiety by Risking Failure," published October 13, 2022, Forrest Talley wrote “At the heart of anxiety is the double helix of uncertainty and threat. Avoiding the big challenges in life is not only doomed to fail but also is guaranteed to make life a tepid and anemic slog. When you’ve experienced repeated failures and continue to pick yourself up and move forward, confidence emerges.”

Those who have navigated the chaos allow themselves to be terrible, experience repeated failures, learn to process the uncertainty and threat along the way, and then find a way to stand back up and move forward one step at a time.

A June 13, 2017, New York Times column by Carl Richards discussed this concept of being terrible when he wrote about an email he received from a reader named Chip Scanlan. When discussing his writer’s block to Richards, Scanlan wrote: “Whenever I’m blocked … I lower my standards. Correction, I do my best to not have any standards at all. I abandon my standards. I urge myself to write badly, and once I do that my fingers begin to fly, and the inner critic is powerless.”

Once such person who allowed himself to be terrible and write badly is British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is currently one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in the English-speaking world. He has received four Man Booker Prize nominations and won the award in 1989 for his novel The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, was named by Time as the best novel of the year and was included in the magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.

In 2017, the Swedish Academy awarded Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature, describing him in its citation as a writer "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Ishiguro, the winner of the Nobel Prize details how he navigated the chaos when, at 32-years-old, he was flailing professionally and having trouble being productive. So, Ishiguro and his wife, Lorna, hatched a plan to jump-start his creativity.

According to Ishiguro: “I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a ‘Crash.’ During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. I would get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I would not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I would not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.”

As Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic “Ishiguro’s goal was to create an environment, through force of will, in which the author and his story might be merged into one. It was a plan that demanded intentionally de-romanticizing the act of writing.” During his Crash Ishiguro noted “I wrote free hand, not caring about the style or if something I wrote in the afternoon contradicted something, I’d established in the story that morning. The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing. Awful sentences, hideous dialogue, scenes that went nowhere—I let them remain and ploughed on.”

As Garber wrote “Ishiguro’s process worked. Four weeks later, he had a draft of The Remains of the Day. He tinkered with it still, yes. He added and trimmed and honed. For the most part, though, he had, in a concentrated month, completed a masterpiece. Ishiguro gave himself the freedom to be terrible for four weeks—and now he has a Nobel Prize to show for it.”

Today’s reflection requires us to look at the following aspects of Ishiguro’s strategy for navigating the chaos.

  • Acceptance – he needed to have the self-awareness to accept that, at 32 years of age, his career was not going in the direction he wished. His options were to a)keep using his tired old approach to writing, b)give up writing and pursue something else, or c)change his approach to writing entirely to jump start his career. His decision to change how he wrote was based on an acceptance of his reality. How often are your decisions based on an acceptance of the reality?

  • Extreme Dedication – along with his wife he figured out the ‘Crash’ approach to writing where he would allow his writing to consume his life for an entire week. At that point the couple had no children, but they still needed to coordinate efforts if he was to be absorbed in his fictional world for an entire week at a time. How often are you extremely dedicated to your goal?

  • Terrible – perhaps most importantly, Ishiguro wrote terrible sentences. This new process, or ‘Crash,’ provided new opportunities as he gave himself permission to be far from perfect. How often do you allow yourself to be terrible?


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