Just after my second child was born, I gave this talk at TEDx Canberra. Getting it written, practised and done in less than 10 weeks was epic. I’m glad to share this with you.
Here’s the video, and a transcript is below.
We are born illiterate — no way of expressing ourselves; only wordless cries. And we are born without ego. Neuroscience tells us that those first moments, we literally have no sense of self that’s separate from the rest of the world. No sense of where I end, and you begin.
Later, we learn a few letters. We connect them to make our name; to build ideas. And we form beliefs about how much we matter. Some of us decide that we matter very much indeed. others not so much.
Over my 20 years as a writer, trainer and content content strategist, I’ve realised that ego is what ties together the two extremes: the self important speeches of people in power, and the struggle that others face with self doubt when they try to write.
I’m going to explore how that plays out in two domains: when we write about something personal, and when we write at work.
Writing is terrifying
I’ll start with the personal. Have you ever found yourself staring at a blank page and the page is staring back? I know what it’s like because in my 20s, I studied creative writing. I had nine months to write part of a novel. And I had writer’s block for seven of them.
Every morning I’d sit down to write, and the fear was waiting for me. So I’d write blindly; try to outrun it. And then in the afternoon, I’d come back and read what I’d done. And it wasn’t just that I hated it. I genuinely couldn’t tell if it was any good or not. I had no purpose to guide me. It was like walking into the snow without a compass.
Somehow I made it through to the other side. I got my degree. But I never finished that novel.
What happened the last time you ran headlong into self doubt? So many of us just give up or we never even start. But self doubt is a black hole. It captures our creativity and pulls us back into itself; into a place where no light escapes.
But when self doubt wins, society loses. Blogs aren’t written. Papers aren’t published. Instead, the voices that do reach us belong to people with galaxy-sized reserves of self confidence.
So what do we do? Do we try to fill up the black hole with affirmations? To take one identity — I’m a terrible writer — and replace it with another identity — I’m an absolutely phenomenal writer?
That’s not it.
Kurt Vonnegut once said ‘When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’ This is the Kurt Vonnegut who wrote 40 novels, three short story collections and five plays. So his experience shows us that writing every day doesn’t make you immune from self doubt. It just means that you run up against it harder. And more often.
Two years ago, I sat down to write another book; this time a guide to leaving a public service and starting your own business. And this time I finished it. Here’s how I did it.
I got over myself. See back then, writing my novel, I was all caught up in self doubt, I was making it all about me.
I needed a reason to write that I cared about more than my ego. And for me it was to write the book that I wished I’d had. Back when I was leaving government, starting a business and had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
I’ve realised that the less I care about what I think about my capabilities as a writer, the more freedom I gain to do great work.
We need to stop labelling ourselves with identities like ‘I’m a bad writer’. We need to stop thinking about writing as something we are. Instead, we need to think of it as something we do: a set of behaviours connected to a purpose.
Writing is a behaviour
I didn’t learn to drive until pretty late. Well into my 30s, bikes and buses and sponging lifts off friends had worked pretty well for me. And then my wife fell pregnant. Catching a bus to the hospital with a wife and labour wasn’t an option. So now I had a reason to change.
But if I told myself I’m not a driver, then I never would have gone anywhere. Instead, I treated driving as a behaviour. I broke it up: steering, parking, changing gears, and I practised each one. The driving test came. A crotchety old instructor and I drove around the back streets of Tuggeranong — him with his clipboard; me with sweaty palms on the wheel.
I may have ground the gears. I may have bumped the curb once or twice. Anyway, we wound up back at the motor vehicle office and the instructor heaved himself out of the car. “Well,” he said, “I suppose that’ll do”. I passed.
I didn’t need to become an ace rally car driver to drive. I just needed to be good enough to get my wife to the hospital two days later. See, driving wasn’t about my identity. It was a service that I performed for others.
Writing at work
Let’s go to work. Writing at work is a bloodsport. By time your draft has been reviewed by the manager and their manager’s manager, very little writing makes it out alive.
Instead what’s left is stuff like this: ‘the department is committed to the provision of employment services to assist trainees to participate in employment markets’.
Why do we inflict this stuff on each other?
Well, when I work with organisations and scratch beneath the surface, you run into this desperate fear of not being taken seriously. And that fear makes us cover ourselves.
It plays out differently. I work with academics who are terrified of other academics, because the one bit of information that they leave out is a one thing that the other academics will use to tailor work to shreds.
And I meet business owners and marketers who are terrified of being drowned out by the competition. So they feel like they’re only options to shout louder: to big note themselves.
And I meet public servants who are terrified of having their work sent back down to them covered in red pain, because it doesn’t sound ‘public servanty’ enough.
And that’s why the writing that comes out of government is a grey wall between them and the outside world.
But this time, it’s not just about personal fear, even personal skill. And that’s because the place we work has an ego of its own: a tendency to put itself at the centre of the conversation that forms a culture of writing.
That culture is holding a pen when we write a draft, and it’s breathing down our necks, when we review what someone else has done and decide if it passes the standard.
So what should we do?
Writing is relationship
Well, at some point, you’ll hear that you should write for your audience: find the you that you want to reach and just write with them in mind. I wish it was that easy.
At 25 in the final stages of a relationship, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what our issues were and how to solve So I drew my girlfriend a diagram. It had arrows and everything, it made perfect sense to me. It didn’t make sense to her. My diagram wasn’t enough to save our relationship.
Now, you might be a 25 year old male who takes himself a little bit too seriously. Or a massive government department that takes itself a little bit too seriously. The same tendency is there: to project ourselves outwards on the people we’re trying to reach. To think that they see the world as we see it.
This is a bias that psychologists call the curse of knowledge. And here’s the kicker. The research also shows that we think it’s a bias other people have. We think we’re immune. And I know this because I used to think that, as a writer, I was gifted with a mystical insight directly into other people’s minds. Then I discovered user experience research, or UX for short. What it boils down to is this: actually listening. Going out and meeting the people that we’re trying to reach, learning their language and letting them tell us what they need.
It’s not about you
Because the standard for our writing is not does it make sense to us, but: does it make sense to them? Now, this is going to be massively challenging, because it means changing an organization’s whole culture of writing. And that culture over the years is built on habits that make us feel safe and important.
So why do it? Well, when we let go of our assumptions, when we strip away the pretence and the defensiveness, the writing that emerges is interesting, vital and human. And for ourselves, we discover the satisfaction of being useful. Writing is an act of service.