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How to have an essay for everything

It’s a running joke among my friends in WhatsApp groups that I have an essay for everything.

It typically goes like this. A conversation on in one of the several WhatsApp groups I’m active on goes from typical banter to serious stuff. I chime in with my own thoughts, of course, because I always have thoughts. And then I remember, oh wait, I’ve written something about this before (I’m finding I remember everything I’ve written—probably because of how much goes into it). I find the relevant essay and share the link.

And then someone says the words:

You have an essay for everything.

Commitment, meet community

It’s a running joke at this point. Most recently, someone in a group declared all modern flagship smartphones overpriced and there was no reason any phone should cost over $600. I responded that the entire global market clearly disagreed—and I myself use Apple products: definitely not overpriced. But then I remembered I’d just written about how we take change for granted.

It’s doesn’t feel that surprising that I have an essay for “everything” given I started publishing weekly in mid-2020. Not counting newsletters I published over 47,000 words across 39 essays.

It looks impressive (from what my friends tell me) but it didn’t feel impressive. It was just me trying to live up to a commitment. But this prolific publishing of 2020 was something I’d been aiming for for the nearly two decades I’ve been writing.

What changed?

It definitely helped that I started collecting my ideas more regularly and trying to connect them. But that couldn’t explain it. No, when I thought about it, it came down to two things: commitment and community.

Commitment isn’t enough because I’d committed before—I once wrote every day for a month—but it obviously wasn’t enough. And community alone didn’t do the magic, either: far too many from my writing communities couldn’t keep going for all kinds of reasons. No, it took both commitment and community.

Becoming Captain America

I’ll unpack those two things in a bit, but it’s important to point out one more aspect here: identity. You see, the more I thought about it, the more I realised even with those two things, about two months into my weekly writing, I experienced a shift. Before that point I’d been going at it every week, and writing stuff I felt good about. I even felt like my writing had stepped up in its quality, like I was doing some of my best writing yet. But the entire time a fear was brewing within me:

“Yeah, I’m doing okay so far, but how long can I keep this going? How long before I run out of things to write about?”

The shift came with a realisation that answered that fear definitively.

I can do this all year.

I think of it now as my Captain America moment.

I Can Do This All Day GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe knows that moment Cap says those words to a bully, but to my mind he was saying the words to himself. In that moment, a scrawny boy facing down a larger and stronger and more skilled opponent realised his real superpower: the power to keep going. I believe he wasn’t saying it to psych himself up—he was saying it because he recognised it to be true.

It wasn’t a recovery, it was a discovery. It’s was the moment Steve Rogers became someone else. It’s why those become his defining words.

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My moment hit me in early August via a tweet from Web Smith:‬

His point applies to anything—in my case, to weekly essays, because while I’ve been committed to newsletters too, it was essays I was particularly anxious about. Seeing that tweet, I realised three things:

  1. I’d gone beyond the vast majority
  2. I was totally on track for 50—with the rest only a matter of time
  3. Simply keeping on was absolutely a winning strategy

It all came down to consistency.

Consistency, unpacked

Look, consistency is hard. Let’s not even pretend about it.

But it’s not hard for the reason we often think it is: it’s not because you’ve not got the time. That’s the reason we always gone isn’t it? You’d do it, too, if only you could find the time.

(I find that disrespectful of those who are consistent, by the way: when we say that, we’re implying they just happen to have more free time than we do. We’re insinuating that their consistency isn’t because they’ve put things aside, it’s just that, you know, we’re just so much busier. Yeah, sure.)

I get that sometimes you can have a life crisis, an unexpected disaster that throws everything in your life off balance. I get that. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Because when I’ve struggled with consistency in the past, that wasn’t why. And I bet it’s not mostly been why for you either.

No, consistency is hard because of two other reasons: it’s boring and we’re afraid.

Consistency is boring. You do a thing. Then you do it again. And again. And again. And again again. At some point you’re practically begging for something else to do. Even if it’s something you like, it gets to where it just feels like work.

And as if that’s not enough you’re dealing the entire time with the fear that you’re not good enough, that you can’t keep it up. For me it was the fear that I would run out of ideas.

The fear that I couldn’t do this all year.

Familiar?

It’s hard to be consistent because it’s boring and we’re afraid. And that’s where commitment and community come in.

The good enough essay

I said earlier that neither commitment nor community were enough on their own to get me to the point where I experienced an identity shift. It took both. But by commitment, I don’t mean a Rocky-style gritting your teeth and muttering under your breath, “I’ll write if it kills me, dammit!” No. That’s not how Cap got to being able to say he could do this all day.

No, by commitment I mean that I dedicated myself to consistency of effort—not of outcome. That helped with the fear. I was committing to publishing good enough writing every week—not great, but good enough. Because I had come to realise something:

If I put out enough work that was good enough, it’s almost inevitable I’d get good enough to put out great work.

Committing to great work, however, is a recipe for fear. As I described in a previous essay it’s like trying to cook everyday but telling yourself it’s got to be gourmet. But that’s not what I was committing to. I was committing to good enough. And good enough isn’t enough to scare me.

Speaking of fear…community was super helpful with both that and boredom. Last year was the first time in my life that I had fellow writers. From David Perell’s Write of Passage course, I met wonderful folk like Charlie BleeckerAdam TankJuan David Campolargo and Jen Vermet and Nibras Ibnomer. I met up with them every weekend for months, writing together and cheering each other on.

And yet, like I said earlier, it wasn’t enough to have community.

No, what made the difference was I committed to it. Looking back, I feel strongly that a difference appeared over time between those of us who regularly showed up and others who didn’t. That’s not a judgment: I know there were some who had serious life issues get in the way. I’m only saying, whatever the reason some were unable to show up, it was those who did that were still writing long term.

But if you’re ready to commit…

  • to putting in the effort…
  • to being good enough regularly…
  • to showing up for yourself…
  • to showing up for your community…

…well—in time, something begins to happen.

The magic kicks in

Commitment narrowed my focus—but also expanded it. That’s because putting stuff aside so I could write opened up my awareness to opportunities for writing. It’s like how when you focus on getting a car,you start noticing how many people have that car. It changed how I saw and helped me see more of it.

And in time, helped me see my own self differently. That’s the identity shift. That’s when “something” that happens. Not just the consistency, or the community or the commitment to both of them—it’s that, in good time, they lead to a shift in identity.

And when that happens, it’s like magic. It’s like you’re a different person, because, well—you are a different person.

Why do I have “an essay for everything”?

Because the person I now am writes an essay every week.


My thanks to Eneni Sowande for asking the thoughtful questions that helped me flesh out this essay.


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